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Provence makes case at Philly casino hearing

Tower Entertainment LLC was second to present Tuesday at the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s first round of Philadelphia casino suitability hearings, following up a pitch from Penn National Gaming.

Tower Entertainment LLC was second to present Tuesday at the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board's marathon first round of Philadelphia casino suitability hearings, following up a pitch from Penn National Gaming.

While Penn National emphasized the ease of access their proposal at South Seventh Street and Packer Avenue would provide to gamblers, operators of The Provence, proposed for the former Inquirer building at Broad and Callowhill streets, put the onus on non-gaming offerings.

Tower Entertainment president Bart Blatstein called the $700 million proposal a "truly magnificent, transformational project that includes every possible amenity you can think of," including plans for a hotel, concert hall, spa and fitness center, rooftop pool, botanical garden as well as jazz, comedy and night clubs.

Architect Paul Steelman said one of the chief goals of The Provence's design was to create a destination that could serve as both tourist attraction and regional draw. Designs call for a "stratified casino" with amenities appealing to five tiers of patrons, from basic gamblers up to VIPs. "Something that's often forgotten in the Pennsylvania market is that not every gambler is the same," Steelman said.

The team is betting the expansive roster of amenities will draw customers that wouldn't usually patronize the state's casinos. "We're not going after the same market as everybody else," Blatstein said. "It's very simple. Out of everybody I know, nobody goes to the casinos in the region. ... We're going after the 80 percent of people who don't go. We're going to create a new market."

The Provence team suggested their design and amenity standards would raise the bar for other neighboring casinos as they positioned themselves to compete. "The Provence has the potential to elevate the investments and quality of other casinos," said Spectrum Gaming Group head of economic and policy analysis Michael Pollock. Econsult Solutions president Steve Mullin hailed the North Broad Street location, which he claimed would spur surrounding non-gaming development. "The Provence would be a catalyst to transform the entire area by creating a new sense of place in this key location," he said.

Much was also made of The Provence's projected annual revenue, estimated to be $439 million by its second year in operation - $100 million more than any other applicant. The casino's economic impact is estimated to be $900 million in activity and an additional $750 million in ancillary spending.

Presenters drew parallels to The Piazza at Schmidt's, a project previously undertaken by Blatstein that's widely credited with revitalizing the Northern Liberties area. The Piazza helped increase neighboring real estate values by $1 billion and added $12 million each year to the state's coffers in the form of new tax revenue.

In fact, the Blatstein brand was presented as a credential in its own right, along with celebrity chefs Tom Colicchio and Andrew Carmellini, who have already agreed to man anchor restaurants, should The Provence win the license.

Some concerns were raised about security issues: the project billed itself as a walkable destination, leading some board members to ask how patrons with large sums of cash in their pockets could be safe traversing the area. Blatstein replied with plans to create, in conjunction with Allied Barton and Tyco, a neighborhood safety plan consisting of trained patrols, surveillance cameras and emergency call boxes.

The gaming control board also granted a petition to intervene to three local organizations near The Provence – Congregation Rodeph Shalom, the Mathematics, Civic and Sciences Charter School and the Friends Select School. Counsel for those stakeholders claimed The Provence's proposed site was, with a location placing it within 1,500 feet of an estimated 50,000 students, close to too many schools and hospitals.

The neighbors claimed Provence planners inflated the number of available off-site parking spaces and assumed too high a percentage of patrons would use public transportation rather than driving. Those factors, they said, would further congest an already highly-trafficked area.

Gaming Control Board members gave the Provence an opportunity to respond to those concerns directly Wednesday or Thursday as the three remaining casino operators present their plans.