Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Tribes In The News: Mashantucket May Move Philadelphia Casino Site From Waterfront To Downtown

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The Mashantucket Pequots may have found a casino siting solution that is agreeable to Philadelphia city officials as described below in a Philadelphia Inquirer article today:

Rendell, Nutter hail casino plan
By Jeff Shields and Jennifer Lin
Philadelphia Inquirer
September 11, 2008

A proposal to switch the Foxwoods location to the Gallery from the riverfront could enhance the Market East area, they said.

A proposal to build the Foxwoods Casino within the Gallery at Market East rather than on the South Philadelphia waterfront would allow the city to reinvent one of its dreariest downtown thoroughfares and improve nearby neighborhoods, Gov. Rendell and Mayor Nutter said yesterday.
Rendell, Nutter and Foxwoods officials formally introduced their plan, which calls for building a 3,000-machine slots parlor in part of the Gallery, a 1970s-era attempt at urban retail redevelopment that never quite took.

Instead of erecting an automobile-oriented complex on Columbus Boulevard, Foxwoods would build a public-transit-friendly casino in 300,000 square feet on the section of the Gallery anchored by a Burlington Coat Factory.

Rendell said that, in the past, he was sensitive to the potential effect of a Center City casino on the city's important tourism industry and the nearby historic district. He said he was now comfortable that the half-mile buffer between the Gallery and Independence Mall would suffice.

If executed properly, Nutter said, the remaking of the Gallery as part of a broader plan for the Market East Corridor "gives us a new opportunity to completely reevaluate how we're doing planning and economic development in our downtown central core."

The concept presents Foxwoods with a chance to build retail and hotel space and act as a catalyst for a grander redevelopment of the Market East Corridor, officials said. Foxwoods does not have city approval to build subsequent phases at its South Philadelphia location.

"This, frankly, gives us a shot at an even more exciting outcome," said Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation chairman Michael Thomas, whose tribe is in partnership with local investors to build its first project outside its successful casino complex in Ledyard, Conn.

"We would like to be part of longer-term phases of development for the city," said Thomas. "We don't build slot rooms."

One option would be to expand atop the Gallery, which was constructed with a foundation that would support building on top of it.

Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, called the proposal "a path-breaking opportunity."

"What we should do with this opportunity is not simply focus on the casino project itself, but think about how this is a catalyst for the entire Market Street East development," he said.

Nutter and Rendell took pains to present the proposal as an "option" that requires vetting by the public, and multiple hoops to be jumped through. Those include City Council zoning legislation and public hearings, approval by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, and possibly state legislation.

"Our commitment is to try and get something reasonably done," said Nutter, whose promise of an open process was already under attack yesterday.

Helen Gym of Asian Americans United, one of the groups that helped kill a proposal to build a baseball park in Chinatown several years ago, was one of those faulting the deal.

"Right now, this process has taken the community by surprise and follows a pattern of redevelopment that's been going on for 30 years," Gym said.

She and Deborah Wei, principal of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School in Chinatown, wore "No Stadium in Chinatown" T-shirts to the City Hall news conference where the proposal was unveiled.

Casino-Free Philadelphia, which has provided the political savvy for the anti-casino movement, issued a statement yesterday calling the proposal a "huge win," but also a "betrayal."

"Instead of using a transparent process with public input as a guide, our elected officials are now trying to place a casino in a neighborhood with no bigger planning, no principles, and no relationship to citizens who will be affected," the statement said.

Rendell said that if Foxwoods failed in its attempt at the Gallery, it would proceed with its original waterfront scheme.

"That's not a threat - that's their right, that's their livelihood," he said. "They've already put a lot of money into this, and they have to begin the process of recouping it, and we understand that."

Foxwoods has invested $120 million in licensing fees and its South Philadelphia property alone, said Thomas, the tribal chairman.

Foxwoods has been trying to build a $670 million facility in Pennsport since December 2006, when it was awarded one of two Philadelphia slots licenses.

Neighbors, joined by anti-casino activists, City Councilman Frank DiCicco (whose district encompasses Pennsport), and state legislators, have argued that it would ruin their neighborhood.

Nutter, when he took office in January, joined their opposition, saying casinos did not fit his vision for the waterfront.

In July, Rendell asked Foxwoods to meet with him in a deal with Philadelphia legislators who were holding up a critical economic-development bill. Last month, he and Nutter announced that Foxwoods was willing to explore other properties. What he didn't say was that Foxwoods was already targeting the Gallery.

Tim Caramanico, chairman of the Friends of Independence National Historical Park, said a casino could actually attract more visitors to the historic district.

"I don't think it will be a negative issue for the park," he said.

The development would bring more traffic, but Rendell said that the extensive Market East SEPTA station would cut down on cars.

Nutter said casino traffic would reach its peak at night, when East Market Street was a "dead zone," as DiCicco described it.

Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia is owned by Foxwoods Development, the development arm of the Mashantucket Pequots, in partnership with a local ownership group founded by developer Ronald Rubin, Comcast/Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, and entrepreneur Lewis Katz. The local ownership has vested its share of the partnership in charitable trusts and will take no profit from the deal. Rubin is also chairman and chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns the Gallery.