By Matt Blanchard
Residents opposed to casinos in Fishtown and South Philadelphia say they’ve finally been granted a face-to-face meeting with Governor Rendell, to be held in Philadelphia on Thursday, Aug. 2nd.
A spokesman for the governor declined to confirm the meeting, calling it “private.” But for members of the Delaware River Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of 24 different civic associations, the meeting could be a moment of truth.
Is Rendell coming to offer a compromise? Is he coming to quell the casino rebellion? Or is he just coming to let citizens blow off steam? Sources who will attend the meeting tell PlanPhilly participants have been told to decline any media interviews following the event.
Topping of the residents’ agenda is one big, perhaps too big, request: Move the casinos.
“We’re enlisting the aid of the governor to look at this thing from our standpoint, from the standpoint of traffic and other impacts,” said DRNA member Jeff Rush. “There are sites that exist that would have much less impact on the surrounding communities.”
Rush politely concedes that Rendell is “the decider” on the casino issue, but hopes he’ll keep an open mind. The DRNA has been fighting hard to establish a 1,500-foot buffer between casinos and houses, schools and churches. That would mean finding two new sites for SugarHouse and Foxwoods.
“People of good will can accomplish miracles,” Rush said.
It may take a miracle. Rendell advocated for riverboat gambling as Philadelphia mayor, and ran for governor on a promise to legalize gambling statewide. Major investors in the Foxwoods casino include major donors to Rendell’s political war chest.
Rendell recently commented to KYW radio that he will not discuss removing casinos from Philadelphia altogether. But he stakes no explicit position on simply moving them around.
“If [residents] say, ‘we’re worried about traffic, we’re worried about people parking in our neighborhoods, we're worried about crime,’ I’m happy to work with city officials to alleviate those concerns,” Rendell told KYW. “If they say, ‘we don't want casinos in Philadelphia,’ [I] can't help them.”
DRNA members say they don’t know what to expect from Rendell.
“I have no idea what he hopes to get out of the meeting,” says DRNA member Matt Ruben. “This is our opportunity to tell him what’s on our mind.”
Mixed Signals from Fumo, DiCicco
Meanwhile, local politicos have taken up the issue of casino relocation in ways that perhaps only they truly understand.
On July 13, State Sen. Vince Fumo responded to DRNA pressure by introducing casino buffer legislation. He then issued a press release announcing that the bill “has virtually no chance of passing either the House or Senate.”
To add another twist, Fumo took the legislation requested by the DRNA and split it into two bills – one affecting SugarHouse and a second for Foxwoods. Both bills called for a 1,500-foot buffer between casinos and houses, but only in parts of the city that are either less than 12.5 miles from Harrah’s Casino in Chester, or less than 14 miles from Philadelphia Park Racetrack in Bensalem.
Fumo spokesman Gary Tuma says having two bills allows one neighborhood to embrace casinos (read Fishtown), even if another neighborhood rejects them (read Pennsport).
Folks at the DRNA are still trying to puzzle out Fumo’s motives, and the group is reportedly on the verge of publicly repudiating the bills.
Another active pol is Councilman Frank DiCicco. On July 17, he took the microphone during a hearing on Foxwoods’ application to the Planning Commission to ask for more time to “find an alternate site.” DiCicco reminded the audience of City Council’s Special Committee on Gaming Alternate Site Selection, a task force designed to aid in relocating the casinos, formed by council vote in April.
Yet three months after its formation, the special committee is mostly special for having no members. The office of City Council president Anna Verna, who has three appointments to the seven-member committee, confirmed on Friday that no names have been offered.
DiCicco chief of staff Brian Abernathy explained the reluctance: “No matter what site is chosen, there will always be opposition. Do you stir up that hornet's nest if there's no chance of actually moving the casinos?”
Abernathy added that the memberless committee is not just political cover.
“Frank would love to get it off the ground,” he said. “This wasn’t just for show. But we’re not going to sit out there and give people false hope.”
So what does it take to move a casino?
Act 71, the founding legislation of Pennsylvania gambling, addresses the issue of relocating casino licenses in section 1329.
§ 1329. Nonportability of slot machine license.
Each slot machine license shall only be valid for the specific physical location within the municipality and county for which it was originally granted. No slot machine licensee shall be permitted to move or relocate the physical location of the licensed facility without board approval for good cause shown.
Though worded as a restriction, the section suggests that the state Gaming Control Board could vote to allow the relocation of a casino license if members saw “good cause” to do so.
For those who want casino to move, relocation seems like a simple thing, a switch the board could flick tomorrow.
“Everybody walks around asking, ‘What justifies good cause?’ That’s the question that needs to be answered,” said Mary Isaacson, chief of staff to state Rep. Mike O’Brien. “I think ‘good cause’ would be recognizing that the Foxwoods situation arguably threatens the public health, safety and welfare.”
What does ‘good cause’ mean to the Gaming Control Board?
Board spokesman Richard McGarvey said he wasn’t entirely sure, but that the question – and all of Section 1329 – may be irrelevant to the current debate. While Sugarhouse and Foxwoods have won the license competition, he said, they haven’t actually been awarded their licenses yet.
And there’s more. Once the casinos do actually get their licenses, observers on both sides agree that only the casinos themselves can petition the board to relocate. It’s not unlike a liquor license, argues anti-casino attorney Paul Boni, in that the neighbors can’t petition to have it moved. Only the license holder can do that.
So in the end, perhaps it all comes down to political power. The casinos will only want to move if someone or something more powerful makes them want it.
Efforts by Fumo and DiCicco in that direction have included a driving tour of an undisclosed alternate site or sites for Foxwoods executives, and an offer of $30 million as compensation (similar inducements have not been aimed at SugarHouse).
Foxwoods isn’t biting. Spokeswoman Maureen Garrity says the casino won’t consider alternate sites because they already have. While preparing their original application, Garrity says Foxwoods researched all workable sites and settled on their current site at Reed Street and Columbus Blvd.
“It’s not even about the legal question. We like our site.” Garrity said. “So we don’t really need to investigate any of that. We’re happy where we are.”
To see an analysis of alternative casino sites, check out the final report of the city’s Gaming Advisory Task Force. See pages 83-122.