O’Brien says casino talks going nowhere

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said yesterday that Monday’s meeting between the casino and representatives from two civic organizations went so well a community benefits agreement could be in place within weeks.

“We had a great first session, and in the next couple of weeks, we should be wrapping it up,” she said. More talks are scheduled for next week – Tuesday and Thursday.

But not every community association is participating in the talks. While pro casino groups New Kensington Community Development Corp. and Fishtown Action were there Monday, Fishtown Neighbors Association and Northern Liberties Neighbors Association were not.

So would an agreement without the missing groups be valid? Whitaker said yes. “We have groups at the table that represent the community,” she said. “Fishtown Action has 560 active members. That number is significant.”

As for the boycotters? The casino cannot force them to come, she said. “If they don’t come to the table, I think we have to move forward. I don’t think that them not being here makes this process invalid.”

But State Rep. Michael O’Brien, whose district contains the proposed site, thinks it does. He said he won’t propose legislation that SugarHouse needs to build its casino as planned without an agreement that includes FNA and NLNA.

“The way it is structured now? No, I would not be inclined to do that,” he said.

The legislation SugarHouse wants O’Brien to propose would grant the casino the use of about 11 acres of riverbed land, called riparian land. The state owns the land, but will enter into lease agreements that allow developers to use it for a fee with the legislature’s blessing.

By tradition, only the legislator who represents the district where the land is located introduces the legislation.

In addition to an agreement that included the boycotting neighborhood associations, O’Brien said he would also need the city to create a Commercial Entertainment District before he would submit a riparian rights bill on SugarHouse’s behalf.

A CED would zone a section of the city to allow for casinos.

“If you want to build a hot dog stand, you go to L&I and pull the permits,” O’Brien said. “If you can’t pull your permits, you can’t build a hot dog stand. And at this point in time, they can’t get permits and they can’t build a casino.”

O’Brien also reiterated he is not anti-casino, and that should they eventually want table games, he’d vote to support it. “This is strictly a land use issue” and he does not see the present siting as the best use of the proposed site.

The City Council Committee of Rules had been scheduled to consider nine ordinances related to SugarHouse’s plans and the creation of a Commercial Entertainment District, but they were pulled off of the schedule, canceling a public hearing that had been slated for Sept. 26.

As of Friday, members of the Fishtown Neighbors Association were uncertain whether they would attend Tuesday’s session.

Even if they do, an agreement seems unlikely, since FNA’s first priority is getting SugarHouse to build elsewhere, and SugarHouse likes its planned location.

FNA President Herb Shallcross said his organization wouldn’t negotiate anything else without a relocation agreement. “We’re at an impasse,” he said.

But FNA will attend meetings if it secures legal representation, which as of Friday morning, had yet to happen.

SugarHouse has agreed to pay much of the attorney fees that the community associations accumulate in the course of reaching an agreement. But it will not cover any that arise from discussion about moving the proposed casino to another location, Shallcross said.

The negotiations sessions between SugarHouse and the community representatives are set for 6 p.m. at the Philadelphia Hyatt. They are not open to the press or public, at the request of the community groups, Whitaker said.

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