Philadelphia's recent casino hearings brought back memories of those giddy days in 2006 when gambling was new to Pennsylvania and no amenity was too extravagant for our city's gaming halls. Once again, the applicants vied to seduce us with all kinds of extras. A 320-room resort hotel! Spas! Bike paths! Fishing piers! Skating rink! Luxury shops! A starchitect design!
For most people, the promises made during the first licensing round have been lost in the mists of time. But because I am a magpie of the filing cabinet, I only had to dust off SugarHouse's 2006 proposal to see how it checked out against the 2013 reality.
That plan showed a sleek, low-slung casino design, inflected with a touch of Mad Men-era glamour in Phase 1. Of course, what we got instead was a Walmart-style box. For Phase 2, SugarHouse told us it would grow into a dramatic resort complex anchored by a prow-shaped hotel tower overlooking the Delaware River, and equipped with a convention-quality ballroom and a concert venue.
As it happened, SugarHouse unveiled the expansion plan - which it now prefers to call Phase 1A - on the same day hearings were wrapping up for the city's second casino. Notably absent from its proposal were the hotel and the theater. An open-deck garage will still loom over the river, however, three levels shorter than the original 10-story version.
Suckers that we are, we continue to speak of the fantasies that were presented last week to the Gaming Control Board as "plans." What they are, in reality, is bait.
Steve Wynn, in particular, should have gotten the P.T. Barnum award. After declaring his special love for Philadelphia, where he spent his college years, and promising to tailor his Delaware River casino specifically to the city, it was revealed that he is two-timing us already. The rendering he has been showing to his Philadelphia fans is identical to the one he presented to the citizens of Everett, Mass.
The six proposals clearly do not deserve serious architecture reviews. How can you evaluate a mirage?
Yet where Philadelphia's next casino ends up will have a lasting impact here. Rather than focus on computer-generated sleight-of-hand, we should concentrate now on determining which site will bring the most gain and do the least damage to the city.
The difficulty in evaluating these proposals is that every casino element - the gaming floor's size, number of restaurants - is determined by industry formulas more than by local conditions. The industry has changed dramatically since the first round of licensing in Pennsylvania, when just a handful of states allowed gambling. Today, casinos have been approved in 40 states, and there are 979 gambling halls operating in the United States.
With so many flashing slot machines scattered along our highways, the market is nearly saturated, especially in the Northeast, explained Roger Gros, publisher of Global Gaming Business, and one of the most astute industry observers I've encountered.
Gamblers no longer need to turn a trip to a casino into a weekend getaway or summer vacation, the way they once did. Most people now treat casinos like supermarkets. They travel to the most convenient location, sometimes dropping in for an hour on the way home from work.
In the Philadelphia area, the nearest casino is often less than 10 miles from home. No wonder the three local gaming halls - SugarHouse, Parx in Bensalem, and Harrah's in Chester - never bothered to build their promised hotels. And if they have no need for guest suites, what makes anyone think the winner of Philadelphia's second license will?
Yet all six applicants tout hotels as major elements in their proposals. The Hollywood Casino, one of three applicants grouped near the Walt Whitman Bridge, claims it's ready to build a 500-room hotel, which would make it one of the largest in the city. It's hard to believe its clientele, hailing mainly from South Jersey, would need to stay over.
Even less plausible is Wynn's plan for a 320-room resort on the Delaware. The project starts with a one-story garage that sprawls across 20 acres of the lush, 60-acre riverfront site. Deep in the belly of this beast, Wynn plans a windowless bunker of a casino - presumably safe from military attack. Corridors, similar to the spokelike arrangement at Eastern State Penitentiary, would funnel gamblers from their parking spaces to the slot machines. Fun! The upside is that the garage won't be as visible as SugarHouse's seven-story version.
Gros doesn't believe the old model of the casino-hotel - with its full-service menu of entertainment, shops and spas - is dead. But it does seem that it can only work in locations with special draw, like places of natural beauty or cultural significance.
It won't happen on a highway, where four of the six applicants hold sites. But the new kind of casino Gros imagines might be possible in Center City. That means the only applications worth considering are the Goldenberg Group's Market8, at Eighth and Market Streets, and Bart Blatstein's Provence, on the former Inquirer property at Broad and Callowhill Streets.
Both are within walking distance of the Convention Center and Center City's restaurants and attractions. Of course, both promise to build the usual roster of hotels, shops, and entertainment as part of Phase I.
Which has the better site?
It's almost a draw, but here are some factors to consider:
The Provence has easier highway access. Market8 has better transit. The Provence's faux French architecture is tacky. Market8's architect, Enrique Norten, is a real designer, but his rendering is a total fake, eye candy whipped up in a blender. Blatstein has a record of building urban buildings; Goldenberg gave us suburban-style shopping centers like West Philadelphia's Lowe's and the Columbus Boulevard Ikea.
The Provence would preserve the historic Inquirer tower and occupy a hard-to-use site. Although Eighth and Market should be the most desirable vacant site in the city, Goldenberg has sat on it for 15 years. He claims to have rejected a proposal from Target because it would be a "two-story box."
As Philadelphia continues to mull its choices, it's important to remember that both developers are master salesmen. Of the handful of downtown casinos in the United States, only two - New Orleans and MGM Detroit - have made good on their hotel promises. Once the dazzling renderings fade, don't be surprised if we're left with a downtown version of the SugarHouse box.