By Kellie Patrick Gates
One week after receiving approval for its financing plan from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, SugarHouse Casino has closed on a $195-million loan. With that, officials said, construction will begin soon.
“We are very excited about finalizing the financing and moving ahead quickly to build a world-class entertainment facility along the banks of the Delaware River,” said Greg Carlin, SugarHouse’s CEO, in an emailed statement.
But while casino officials say they have all the permits they need to start construction, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers isn't positive that is correct. The Corps has seen architectural drawings, but wants to see SugarHouse's formal plans before work starts, said spokesman Rich Pearsall.
SugarHouse workers have already started driving the 85 support pilings needed for the temporary facility at the Fishtown site. The loan means that after they've finished their work in the coming weeks, other construction can begin, said casino spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker.
SugarHouse had applied for an Army Corps permit, but said last spring it no longer needed it to start building. Whitaker said under the current design, both the interim casino and Phase I can be completed without using land that is under the Corps' jurisdiction. Pearsall said the SugarHouse application process "has gone dormant."
Pearsall said from the drawings, it looked like SugarHouse's assertion is probably correct, and no permit is needed. And the Corps told SugarHouse that was the case. But “what they showed us was an artist's conception, which is not the same thing as an engineering drawing. We have to be sure that this doesn't come onto our turf, where the high tide line would be,” he said. “We would like to know what exactly they are doing, given the fact they are so close to our jurisdiction.”
Pearsall said that if after reviewing the plans, the Corps determined that SugarHouse's interim project will not involve any part of the Corps' jurisdiction, they would issue a formal declaration saying so.
There's a second reason the Corps wants to go over detailed plans. The previous owners of the casino site illegally filled in a lagoon on the property, Pearsall said. SugarHouse is not responsible for removing that fill, he said, but they cannot benefit from it in anyway. To do so would be a violation, he said.
Terry McKenna, project executive for SugarHouse's general contractor, said he is confident that SugarHouse will not be in violation in either respect. SugarHouse has discussed the redesign with the Corps, he said in an email. “At that time, the Corps agreed that as long as our improvements did not extend beyond the high tide line, we would not need a Corps permit. Since that time, we have finalized our plans where no improvements are constructed beyond the Corps high tide elevation.”
So far as the fill is concerned, McKenna said that while the issue dates back to the early 1980s and “SugarHouse HSP Gaming, L.P. is not responsible for the placement of that fill, we acknowledge that the ultimate resolution of that issue is our responsibility, as we are now owner of the site.”
“To that end, we have met with the Corps numerous times over the last few months, and continue to speak with them about the resolution of this issue,” McKenna said. “In the meantime, we recognize that the illegal fill cannot be utilized for the benefit of the interim casino, and we have no intentions of doing so.”
While the Corps wants to see the formal blueprints, Pearsall said the agency can't require that SugarHouse bring them in. But if SugarHouse goes forward and builds on land under the Corps' jurisdiction, or benefits in some way from the illegal fill, the Corps would find them in violation and could impose penalties. Pearsall was not immediately sure what the penalties would be, but said such things are usually decided on a case-by-case basis.
Pile drivers are not the only workers at the SugarHouse site. Archaeologists have set up a tent, although they have not yet begun their work.
SugarHouse already did more than a year of archaeological work at the site as part of a historical review required by federal law in order to get a federal permit. While the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum and other critics have been dissatisfied with the archaeological work SugarHouse's team has done, the Corps said in April that SugarHouse had done more than enough pre-construction digging, but should do further exploration for Native American and other artifacts during construction. This includes the exploration of a 30-foot by 50-foot rectangle that was found to contain prehistoric soils and the land beneath Penn Street, where some of the local archaeologists and historians who were guiding the Corps in the historical preservation process believe remnants of a British Revolutionary War Fort may be found.
These guidelines issued by the Corps are the ones the archaeologists will be following, Whitaker said. They will do their work concurrent to construction.
Pearsall said the historic review process came to a halt when SugarHouse withdrew its application. He supposes SugarHouse is “doing due-diligence on their own” because future phases of construction would require a Corps permit, and the process would resume.
Whitaker said market conditions will dictate what happens beyond Phase I, but whether or not a permit is needed, SugarHouse wants to “be cooperative” and “preserve history.”
The Pennsylvania Historial and Museum Commission also advised the Corps on the SugarHouse historical review, and they signed off on the Corps' letter that outlined the archaeological steps SugarHouse will now take.
Whitaker said SugarHouse has continued to work with PHMC, and expects to reach a memorandum of agreement with the agency regarding the remaining archaeological work within weeks. At that point, the digging will begin, she said.
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