A CITY COUNCIL committee yesterday approved zoning legislation for a $450 million casino and hotel project in South Philadelphia, despite hours of testimony from Philadelphians and out-of-towners who alleged the developer practices racially discriminatory tactics reminiscent of the segregated south.
During a five-hour hearing, officials from the Cordish Cos., of Baltimore, said that the charges were "trumped up" and that the company had never lost a discrimination lawsuit in its 105-year history.
Cordish officials showed members of Council's Rules Committee a marketing video so slick that one of the company's opponents, the Rev. James Wright Sr., joked that it made him want to gamble.
But there were few other laughs during the heated hearing that pitted Cordish against its alleged victims, a contingent of African-American pastors, community members and the Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network.
"Would you reward a company that has over a decade of Jim Crow practices in Louisville, Ky.? That's what they're asking you to do," testified Shelton McElroy, one of five people who traveled from Louisville, where Cordish operates the Fourth Street Live entertainment and dining venue.
McElroy, who is suing Cordish, said he was ejected from a restaurant at the venue and arrested after being accused of violating the dress code and asking for a refund of his $10 cover charge. That night, McElroy, who is black, recalled seeing white men drinking and dancing topless on the bar.
Maya Williamson, who is white, broke down recalling how she was trained as a hostess at the Louisville venue to keep down the number of black patrons.
She recalled her manager telling her, " 'This company does not want black people here at Fourth Street Live.' She said, 'They have told us they are bad for business. They interfere with the white customers.' She said, 'If you can do anything to keep them out, do it,' " Williamson said.
Cordish officials - backed by testimony from local NAACP president Rodney Muhammed and Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity president Terrence Griffith - swatted the discrimination allegations, calling them incredible.
"Someone making an allegation doesn't make it true, and people getting up and distorting and providing misleading information on a de minimis number of complaints does not make it true," said Joe Weinberg, Cordish CEO of gaming.
Some of the lawsuits stemmed from incidents involving third-party tenants with whom Cordish had nothing to do, Weinberg said.
"To think that I would - as an African-American who's responsible for the operations of our properties throughout the country - would allow discriminatory practices to reach the rank-and-file or to any degree, is absurd," said Zed Smith, Cordish chief operating officer.
Smith said that although the company has implemented dress-code policies for "public safety" at other venues around the country, South Philadelphia's Live! Hotel & Casino will have no dress code. He was not asked about the change in policy.
Cordish officials and those from its partner, Greenwood Gaming and Entertainment Inc., testified that in the first five years of operation, the casino is projected to generate $2 billion in stimulus and $100 million in total taxes for the city.
All 2,000 permanent employees will earn at least $12 an hour, half the jobs will be staffed by minorities and 40 percent by women, the officials said.
Still, the officials appeared embarrassed when Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown said she was "awestruck" that only men were sitting at the table representing both companies.
Smith then summoned a female company official in the gallery to sit with the row of men.
"It kind of feels like you pull me out when you need me," Councilwoman Cindy Bass remarked at this.
Paula Peebles, chairwoman of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network, said she was not surprised that the committee unanimously gave Cordish a victory.
"Cordish spent a lot of money buying votes, buying support," she said. "They totally ignored the fact that black people have been discriminated against by this company, and we believe that it will continue."
Committee Chairman Bill Greenlee said he was swayed by the NAACP's and black clergy group's support of Cordish and by the fact that the company has never been found liable for discrimination in court.
"Sometimes there's going to be differences of opinion," he said. "But we feel there was enough support for this in the community."
Greenlee said he also was impressed that civil-rights activists and business people from Baltimore, Louisville and St. Louis came to testify on Cordish's behalf.
"I think that there are still some questions that are lingering, and we'll wait for the answers to those questions before we take the final vote," Bass said.
The full Council is scheduled to vote on the zoning bills Dec. 3.