IT'S HARD TO imagine how answering a call to revitalize American cities could go wrong for Philadelphia, but somehow it happened.
Last month, the Nutter administration submitted a $2.6 billion wish list for President-elect Obama's economic stimulus package. Out of 400 cities, Philadelphia ranked No. 2 in the amount of money requested. And second on the city's list (in dollars) was $125 million for the redevelopment of Market East in anticipation of a proposed casino.
Never mind that city officials rushed through a rezoning process saying the casino itself would be the catalyst for development in the area. Never mind that four months later, there isn't even a plan in place.
As one city official explained it: "We just want to make sure the opportunity for funding doesn't go away just because the project's not ready to be defined."
It's not only Philadelphians who raised an eyebrow at that logic. Earlier this month, national GOP leaders flagged the development as a prime example of a pork-laden stimulus package. It also got top billing in the Washington Post and on CNBC, which ridiculed the request.
As one TV commentator put it: "These projects are supposedly shovel-ready. The question is what are they shoveling?"
Regardless of the characterization, the city's request for $125 million for Market East and related casino costs raises many questions. First and foremost: How much will casinos end up costing the city in these hard economic times?
While the city has been quick to add up supposed revenue, it has budgeted zero costs. The mayor said he wouldn't even pay for added public safety since he expects the casino to pay for it.
Turns out that even the city doesn't believe its own hype because we're apparently hoping U.S. taxpayers will foot the bill.
* $100 million in infrastructure, acquisition and construction costs.
* $25 million in public safety costs for the "Casino Entertainment Corridor."
Now, if we're paying for this development with our tax dollars, remind me again why we need a slots house on top of the Gallery? And if Philadelphia doesn't get that $125 million for the casino corridor, what then? Who pays for this development and what are we getting for our money?
Meanwhile, the city is crunched for financial and human resources. The mayor apologizes for not making time to meet and talk about issues like library closings. How then does a "casino corridor" with no plans (and maybe insufficient financing) eat up so much time and city resources?
To view gambling solely as a revenue generator and not realize the cost of a predatory industry is a major failure for the city and state leaders, who are already planning gambling expansion. It's easy for Atlantic City and Las Vegas to ignore those costs. They're gambling destinations where the money stays and the problems go home.
BUT IN Philadelphia, placing slots atop the central transit line at a prime youth hangout where everyone is a SEPTA fare away is asking for trouble on a scale that no U.S. city has dared. And as the casino industry tanks nationwide, the city stubbornly continues to hitch its wagon to this crapshoot, wasting time and resources and earning itself a sorry national reputation to boot.
In these times, we need stimulus dollars for investments in energy, education and sustainable economic development. But rather than make a compelling case for the city's future, it feels like our leaders squandered a chance to put forth a thoughtful vision. And while nobody wants to see the city get a bad rap, maybe the administration is getting what it needs: motivation for a course change to re-evaluate its priorities. *