If the Foxwoods Casino project is stripped of its gaming license next week, the preservationists trying to save the SS United States hope to interest another operator in converting the ship to a gambling hall at the Foxwoods site, philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest said Monday.
Lenfest, who met with The Inquirer's editorial board, is the money behind the effort to keep the derelict oceanliner off the scrap heap. Over the summer, he pledged $5.8 million to buy the ship from current owner Norwegian Cruise Line and maintain it for at least 20 months.
Two weeks ago, Lenfest unveiled his vision of the SS United States as the centerpiece of a grand gaming-retail-tourist destination on the Delaware River waterfront in South Philadelphia. One scenario would have some gambling on land - on the first level of a 10-story garage - with more slots, table games, restaurants, a museum, and a boutique hotel on the ship.
Lenfest conceded that neither the Foxwoods investor group - Philadelphia Entertainment & Development Partners L.P. (PEDP) - nor Harrah's Entertainment has shown any interest in his concept.
PEDP has brought in Harrah's to develop and operate a big-box gaming hall on the 16-acre site on Columbus Boulevard, between Tasker and Reed Streets. By Friday, they must present to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board documents showing they have a binding deal and financing to build the $275-million casino.
On Dec. 16, the seven-member board will vote on revocation of the group's license to operate one of Philadelphia's two gaming halls.
If the board takes away the license, Lenfest said Monday, he is eager to promote his idea for a ship casino to someone else.
"We'd hopefully have an opportunity," he said, "to talk to a new operator, a new group, about using this plan."
Lenfest said he has had conversations with other operators, but could not disclose details.
His plan has one wrinkle: The site is not his.
The land is owned by local investors in the PEDP group. Citizens Bank has a lien of $60 million on the property, while a unit of Harrah's holds a promissory note for the purchase of the land by the locals.
Lenfest said the SS United States Conservancy also has explored the possibility of developing a casino on the waterfront at Packer Avenue or at the Naval Shipyard. The latter site has problems, however. It is less than 10 miles from Harrah's Chester - a potential violation of state gaming law, which does not allow Pennsylvania casinos to be that close together. The General Assembly would have to change the gaming act to permit such proximity.
The Design Advocacy Group of Philadelphia - a public advocacy group of 1,200 professionals interested in design, development, and planning - hailed the idea of using the ship in a casino complex with public space.
Joanne Aitken, the group's chairwoman, wrote in a letter to the conservancy that the plan was "a compelling solution to siting a casino in Philadelphia."