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Ship's allies float new Foxwoods idea

Drawn by repeated distress signals from the Foxwoods Casino project, the preservation group at the helm of a historic ghost ship, the SS United States, is offering to sail upriver with a novel alternative.

The SS United States, docked at Pier 82, could add prestige to a riverfront casino, Mayor Nutter said. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
The SS United States, docked at Pier 82, could add prestige to a riverfront casino, Mayor Nutter said. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)Read more

Drawn by repeated distress signals from the Foxwoods Casino project, the preservation group at the helm of a historic ghost ship, the SS United States, is offering to sail upriver with a novel alternative.

The proposal: Move the derelict cruise liner about three-quarters of a mile north from its resting place at Pier 82 in South Philadelphia and place it next to a new 10-story garage with two floors of gaming.

Cut a dock into the 16-acre site and slip the bow in, facing Columbus Avenue. Renovate and refit the 58-year-old vessel - an estimated $150 million to $200 million job - with gaming floors, restaurants, event space, a museum, and, possibly, a boutique hotel.

"We can place the SS United States into the Foxwoods property in a way that showcases a national treasure and makes it a tourist draw," said Ken Smukler, an adviser to the SS United States Conservancy.

The Washington group is making the pitch at the eleventh hour, as Harrah's Entertainment races to close a deal to take over the stalled casino project before a new state deadline of Dec. 10.

The conservancy has approached Harrah's and the local Foxwoods investors about making the ship the centerpiece of the casino plan, according to Smukler. But by Friday, he said, neither the Las Vegas gaming giant nor the locals - Philadelphia Entertainment and Development Partners (PEDP) - had responded.

Contacted by The Inquirer, Stephen A. Cozen, a lawyer for the Foxwoods partners, replied by e-mail that he would have no comment.

However, Mayor Nutter, briefed on the proposal in recent weeks, described it Friday as "certainly one of the most unique, dynamic, and exciting plans for a casino anywhere in the United States of America."

Although long a critic of using waterfront land for big-box casinos, he noted a prestige factor in "having a casino in one of the largest ocean liners ever built."

And the fastest. The SS United States - retired in 1969 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places, yet repeatedly threatened with scrapping - still holds the record for a westward crossing of the Atlantic, set on its maiden voyage in 1952.

The conservancy completed a study on the feasibility of incorporating the ship into the Foxwoods project, Smukler said, and the result was a two-part, $450 million plan for developing gaming on land and aboard the vessel.

Under the terms of its state gaming license, the casino must be running by the end of 2012. So the first phase outlined in the conservancy study would be the construction of the 10-story garage, with permanent gaming space on the first two floors. Smukler said that could be done for about $250 million, close to what Harrah's expects to spend on a casino at the site.

The ship, he said, would be open for business by mid-2013.

"In our proposal we have reconnected the city of Philadelphia to the Delaware River waterfront," said Neil H.G. Garrioch, studio director of Stephen Varenhorst Architects, which prepared the design study. It would liberate much of the tract for "open space and other uses," he added, and leave "approximately one-third of the site land area still open from Columbus Avenue to the river."

It would also be a lifesaver for the SS United States, which since 1996 has been a sad and hulking presence jutting into the Delaware near the Walt Whitman Bridge.

The 990-foot-long racehorse of a liner - longer by 107 feet than the Titanic - was designed by William Francis Gibbs, who was raised in North Philadelphia and Rittenhouse Square. It was made for dual purposes, as an express cruise liner that could be converted into a troop transport ship. But with the demise of ocean travel, it was taken out of service in 1969.

The rusted ship was bound for the scrap heap until Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest rescued it in July by donating $5.8 million to the conservancy. The money has allowed the group to buy the ship from Norwegian Cruise Line and maintain it for up to 20 months.

Smukler said the conservancy has shared its design study with local investors and national casino operators. "There's been interest," he said.

However, he added, people recognize the uncertainty surrounding the casino's license.

On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board told Harrah's and the local Foxwoods investors that they must seal a deal and produce documents by Dec. 10 proving they have lined up commitments from investors and lenders. If they miss the deadline, the board will vote Dec. 16 on whether to revoke the project's $50 million license, awarded four years ago.

At a hearing before the gaming board, Harrah's presented renderings of a $275 million "Harrah's Horseshoe Casino," similar to the big-box SugarHouse Casino, which opened in September on Delaware Avenue in Fishtown. In South Philadelphia, Harrah's would eventually expand the casino and add a four-story parking garage, but the company presented no time frame for that second phase.

To pay for the project, Harrah's must raise $75 million in equity from investors and $200 million in loans or debt from financial institutions.

Smukler criticized the Harrah's design as "a glorified airplane hangar with slot machines," and said it did not live up to the promise made by the Foxwoods group in 2006.

"Do you really think the high-end casino clientele in the western suburbs is going to be drawn to a casino in South Philadelphia because it has an Asian noodle bar, another steak house, or an Asian gaming room?" he asked.

The conservancy, Smukler said, would be sensitive not only to the city's desire for more open space and public access to the waterfront but also to neighbors' traffic concerns.

Later phases of the development, he said, could include residential buildings and a marina.

"We believe our design speaks to the great maritime history of the port of Philadelphia," Smukler said. "Harrah's Horseshoe Casino speaks to what? A rodeo? Barn dances?"

If Harrah's and the current partners entertain the idea of shipboard gaming, that would add yet another twist to Foxwoods' tortuous saga.

In the last four years, the project was yanked from the South Philadelphia waterfront to the Gallery at Market East mall in Center City, then to the old Strawbridge's building, and finally back to the river.

The job of developing and operating the casino passed from the hands of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, which suffered a reversal in its Connecticut gaming fortunes, into those of Las Vegas gaming tycoon Steve Wynn, who pulled out in April, and now to Harrah's, which already operates a casino 15 miles away in Chester.