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Video-gaming terminals are not what Philly needs, Council members say

Eight City Council members supported measures to prohibit additional gambling opportunities within Philadelphia's borders. Council will take a final vote next week.

An Illinois restaurant owner tries out a  video poker machine at his business.
An Illinois restaurant owner tries out a video poker machine at his business.Read moreAP Photo / M. Spencer Green

Just say no. That's what Philadelphia plans to tell the state when it comes to putting video-gaming terminals and a satellite mini-casino in the city.

Eight City Council members on Thursday supported measures to prohibit these additional gambling opportunities within Philadelphia's borders. Council will take a final vote next week.

Municipalities across the state have until Dec. 29 to tell the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board whether they want to opt out of a sweeping expansion of casino gambling that became law in October. To date, 201 communities have said no, according to a list on the gaming board's website.

The law, designed to bring much-needed revenue to the state, permits up to five video-gaming terminals (VGTs) at truck stops, as well as 10 satellite or mini-casinos around the state.

"We want to send a strong message. We don't want this kind of gaming expansion here in the city of Philadelphia," said Councilman Bobby Henon, who was joined in the resolutions by Council President Darrell L. Clarke and members Helen Gym, Kenyatta Johnson, Mark Squilla, Brian O'Neill, Cherelle Parker, and Al Taubenberger.

Mayor Kenney endorses their measures. "We share their same concerns," said his spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt.

"It's a truck stop now, but it could be local bars or stop-and-gos, which would be in every corner and fabric of our streets," Henon said.

State law defines a truck stop as having diesel islands for refueling, 50,000 gallons of diesel or biodiesel fuel sold in each of the previous 12 months, a convenience store on at least three acres, and parking spaces for 20 commercial vehicles.

Philadelphia does not have a truck stop that would qualify under the law, Henon said.

The concern is that a gas station could be built out, or the acreage found somewhere — or that the state would allow gaming terminals in stop-and-go establishments and neighborhood bars.

"There are too many unscrupulous and/or negative social impacts that will happen if VGTs were allowed," Henon said. "It would not be good for a city that has 26 percent poverty."

City Council's resolutions deal with video-gaming terminals and the mini-casinos that could add up to 750 slot machines and 40 table games.

The mini-casino issue is considered moot, however, because the state law stipulates that a satellite casino cannot be built within 25 miles of a competitor's casino.

Philadelphia has one casino, SugarHouse on Delaware Avenue. A second casino license has been granted for Live! Hotel & Casino near the sports stadiums in South Philadelphia. Nearby are Harrah's Philadelphia in Chester, Parx Casino in Bensalem, and Valley Forge Casino Resort in King of Prussia. All are within 25 miles of one another.

"A mini-casino within the city limits of Philadelphia can't happen," said Doug Harbach, spokesman for the Gaming Control Board.

Since 2012, the city has received nearly $4 million annually in gaming revenue, and the Philadelphia School District has received $5 million annually, according to Council's resolution. Since 2009, Philadelphia has received $86 million a year in state gaming revenue used to help reduce the city wage tax, the measure said.

Forestalling video-gaming terminals is a quality-of-life issue and will help the existing casinos: "We'd like to have more patronizing of the casinos that we have, which goes directly towards our general fund and school district," Henon said.

"Philadelphia continues to grapple with issues related to so-called 'stop-and-go' establishments with liquor licenses that cause significant nuisances in their neighborhoods," one of the resolutions said. "The addition of video-gaming terminals to such establishments would only further increase their negative impact."

On Tuesday, five anti-gambling groups sent a letter urging Council members to opt out of adding more slot machines in neighborhoods.

"Gambling operations prey on low-income and fixed-income residents," said the letter, signed by Stop Predatory Gambling, Liberty Resources Inc., Asian Americans United, Arch Street United Methodist Church, and Casino-Free Philadelphia. "This is your opportunity to protect your constituents. Stand up and be counted."