HARRISBURG — The license that was revoked for the ill-starred Foxwoods Casino project in South Philadelphia could soon be up for grabs — with bidding starting at $65 million.
Pennsylvania legislators in the House are poised to approve legislation as early as Tuesday to hold a statewide auction for the coveted license. The minimum bid, according to the legislation, would be $65 million, and the state Gaming Control Board would have the ultimate say over where, and to whom, the new casino should go.
"This would let the free market determine what price we would get for the casino," said Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester), the bill's sponsor. "It would also allow the market to guide the gaming board as to where the license should go."
Some Philadelphia legislators Monday tried to amend the legislation to give Philadelphia first crack at bidding before opening up the auction statewide. They argued that the gaming law the legislature passed in 2004 required that two licenses be granted in the city, and that the law's original intent should remain intact. The law directs a portion of slot machine proceeds to property tax relief statewide, and to wage-tax relief in the city of Philadelphia.
"The citizens of Philadelphia were promised two casinos, and the state should live up to that promise," said Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D., Phila.).
The amendment was swiftly defeated, however, with its opponents countering that Philadelphia would not be shut out of the process, and would still have the chance to put its best bid forward in the statewide auction.
"The wise and prudent thing is to move on and go back to the intent of the gaming bill when it was first considered: to produce revenue, not to take care of buddies," said Rep. Michael H. O'Brien (D., Phila.). "Let's put this puppy to bed."
If the bill passes the House - and the odds looked good Monday - it will then be sent to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) has been noncommittal, saying that there is a big question mark of whether Pennsylvania's casino market has reached its saturation point, and whether the state would benefit financially from another casino.
Complicating matters, Pileggi said, is that the industry has changed: since Pennsylvania passed the 2004 gaming law, two neighboring states, Ohio and Maryland, have also legalized gambling.
"I'm not certain that the long-term benefit of the commonwealth is best served by an additional gaming facility, despite the short-term attraction of a license fee and the fact that in a time of scarce resources, that can be very attractive," Pileggi said in an interview Monday.
Southeastern Pennsylvania already is host to Parx in Bensalem, Harrah's in Chester, Sugar House in Philadelphia, and the Sands in Bethlehem, plus the recently opened Valley Forge Casino Resort. Last year, state Treasurer Rob McCord — an ex-officio member of the Gaming Control Board — released an analysis of Pennsylvania's gaming market that found that while some indicators pointed to the beginning of a saturated market, gaming revenues were expected to continue growing, if at a slower clip. The market analysis, conducted for his office by an outside firm, identified 11 alternative sites and market for a gaming facility. The top two: southern York County (because there aren't any other casinos in that region) and the area around Reading in Berks County.
The license being debated in the state House has had a rocky history. The Foxwoods group first won the license in 2006 to build a casino on the Delaware River, but was set back by political and neighborhood opposition as well as financial problems. In late 2010, state gaming regulators, running out of patience, stripped it of its license.
Foxwoods investors - including a family trust related to Lewis Katz, one of the new owners of the parent firm of The Inquirer - unsuccessfully appealed the action in Commonwealth Court.
Last month, The Inquirer reported that the developer Bart Blatstein was seeking to turn the Inquirer and Daily News Building into a $500 million casino and entertainment development after the newspapers move to Market Street this summer.