Rendell, Fumo talk casinos with river wards

Aug. 2

By Kellie Patrick
For PlanPhilly

Ed Rendell and Vince Fumo wanted to talk to members of the Delaware River Neighborhood Alliance about ways to mitigate any harm the casinos proposed for their river ward neighborhoods might bring.

But the DRNA members who met with them tonight only wanted to discuss moving those casinos elsewhere.

That dichotomy proved painfully frustrating for at least two meeting participants, who left early saying no progress was being made.

But DRNA spokeswoman Rene Goodwin called the evening “a good first step.”

Rendell and Fumo clearly wanted to talk more about what could be done to preserve the quality of river ward life with Foxwoods and SugarHouse as new neighbors, but “we were so passionate” about looking for new locations that the state leaders could not say much about it, Goodwin said.

She left the Bellevue Hotel feeling that Rendell would try to find different spots for the casinos. “He didn’t guarantee that he could achieve that,” she said.  But “we don’t feel like everything is lost.”

Goodwin said the governor promised this wouldn’t be the last time he spoke with her group. No further talks are set, however.

Matt Ruben, an officer for the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, said the talks were frank in that each side now fully understands the position of the other.

Repeated attempts to arrange for a post-meeting comment from Rendell were unsuccessful, but Goodwin said the governor told those assembled that finding alternative locations acceptable to the developers would be not be easy.

Even in the July 27 invitation State Sen. Fumo sent to DRNA members, he cautioned that relocation was a long shot that would take the “cooperation and consent of the casino developer.”

And Fumo and City Councilman Frank DiCicco have, in fact, already asked the casino developers to consider other locations.

“We’re not going to be moving,” Foxwoods Attorney Jeffery Rotwitt said in a telephone interview a few hours prior to the meeting. “Our license is site specific, and we’ve got millions of dollars invested into our site.”

Foxwood did look at other areas in June “as a courtesy to Councilman DiCicco and Sen. Fumo,” Rotwitt said, but the best suggested site had environmental issues and is also sandwiched between a sewer plant and a gentlemen’s club, he said.

 “The prospect of considering any move is now history, and it won’t be entertained.”

Goodwin said the members of the alliance and the neighborhood associations they represent are not convinced that every possible alternative location has been explored.

Until that happens, Goodwin said, the DRNA is not ready to talk about mitigation.

The meeting was not open to the public or the press. No recording equipment was permitted inside. Some of the neighborhood reps said they were told to refrain from speaking to the press following the event and many of the attendees were uncomfortable with that order. Numerous attempts to get someone from the governor’s office to comment after the meeting were unsuccessful. Despite the restrictive nature of the meeting, four members of the pro SugarHouse group, Fishtown Action (FACT), were in attendance, as were two members of the New Kensington Community Development Corp.

Rendell advocated for riverboat gambling when he was Philadelphia’s mayor. He promised to bring gambling to Pennsylvania when he ran for governor, and casino revenue plays prominently in his plan to reduce property taxes.

As an organization, DRNA has never opposed casinos outright. But it does not like the riverfront locations where Foxwoods and SugarHouse plan to build.

Casino representatives have repeatedly said that those who oppose casinos are not only stalling the inevitable, but delaying an influx of money and jobs into Philadelphia.

Goodwin said her group’s research has convinced them that whatever good things casinos might bring would be offset by increases in crime and gambling addictions. And she believes there is nothing anyone could design that would keep casino traffic from having a huge impact on the neighborhoods.

DRNA would like to see casinos built under the guidelines set forth in an unofficial referendum last election day: No casinos could be built within 1,500 feet of residential neighborhoods, schools or places of worship. The unofficial ballot was put together by Casino Free Philadelphia, a group that opposes casinos anywhere within the city. The same wording was supposed to be on the official ballot, but the courts ruled in favor of the casino developers who sought to block it, and stickers saying “removed by court order” covered the question.

 Those who participated in the unofficial referendum voted in favor of the restrictions. Fumo proposed legislation that would put a buffer into effect – but then issued a press release saying it had virtually no chance of becoming law. City Councilman DiCicco proposed the city adopt a 1,500-foot buffer zone at the June 13 council meeting – the same meeting at which outgoing councilman Juan Ramos proposed granting Commercial Entertainment District status to the SugarHouse site. Council postponed a decision on either until its summer recess ends in September.

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