CASINOS WILL be good for Philadelphia. The devil is in the details.
The biggest problem with the Gaming Control Board's awards to bidders was that the casinos were going to eat irreplaceable waterfront property. No one goes to a casino because of the great views of the river. The casinos probably won't even have windows. People will, however, spend more to live on the river, to have an office along the river or to dine in a restaurant with a view the river. The Delaware riverfront is also not particularly well-served by public transportation and building a highway infrastructure to handle the traffic will butcher it even more than the casinos themselves.
Mayor Street and Gov. Rendell acted as doormats for the casino industry. Cynical citizens might argue that this was because the board awarded one Philadelphia casino to an ownership group dominated by Rendell's friends and the other to an ownership group dominated by Street's friends.
At least now Nutter seems to be more proactive in standing up to the casino interests. The Penn Praxis plan to extend the city grid to the Delaware River is a good one. Big-box casinos surrounded by parking garages do not fit into this vision.
Foxwoods' proposal to relocate its casino to the Gallery makes a lot of sense. That area could use the shot in the arm that an infusion of customers from a casino would bring. More importantly, the area has an existing infrastructure to support dense development. There is a reason that there are already skyscrapers in Center City. The Gallery is well-served by public transportation and is near I-95, the Schuylkill Expressway and the Vine Street Expressway. There are many parking garages and the Convention Center in close proximity.
The residents near all proposed sites raise good points in opposition, and the city must be sensitive to those concerns. Every development, however, goes in someone's backyard. Cities are living, growing organisms. We must make decisions based upon what is best for the collective good. There are better and worse places for casinos. There is no perfect location. Planning can lessen the negative impact on immediate neighbors.
City Council should have long ago passed zoning for casinos. The state Constitution gives municipalities that right. Besides the Gallery site, areas near the airport, the Spectrum and in the Far Northeast would probably benefit from casino development. The fact that they may be closer than 10 miles from other casinos is the state's problem, not ours. The cowardice of City Council in failing to pass any zoning led to the predictable and correct decision by the Supreme Court that the city is practicing exclusionary zoning, leaving the city unable to use zoning to prevent riverfront casinos.
There is certainly a market for casinos, as the panic in Atlantic City since the Pennsylvania casinos opened demonstrates. If we don't tax casino revenues, Pennsylvanians and others who might rather gamble here will simply go to another state and let them tax their activities. There is certainly a ripple effect brought by casinos. Many businesses will benefit from the casinos and their patrons. This will be offset by social problems that casinos bring, but many of those problems already exist and can be dealt with.
Weep not for the Foxwoods and SugarHouse casinos when they whine about all the money that they spent at the current sites. They'll make plenty of money. They both knew that politics would play a big role in the selection process, which is the ONLY reason that they loaded their ownership teams with politically influential local investors. It wasn't their fault. Rendell and the Legislature wrote the law so that they had no choice but to pay if they wanted to play. But they had their eyes wide open and their greed should not direct our policy. *
J. Matthew Wolfe is a Republican ward leader in West Philadelphia and is writing for the Loyal Opposition, a Republican policy group focusing on issues facing the city of Philadelphia.