By Thomas J. Walsh
About 60 members of the advocacy group Casino-Free Philadelphia took advantage of a balmy spring afternoon Thursday by trooping from the west side of City Hall to the South Broad Street offices of Gov. Ed Rendell. The protesters staged a peaceful ‘debate-in’ and sought attention for a new cost-benefit report they commissioned for the city’s two proposed casinos.
According to security personnel at 200 South Broad, nobody from the governor’s southeast office was in the building. Access to the elevators was blocked, but the demonstrators were allowed to hold mini-rallies on the sidewalk in front of the building and in the lobby.
“It means the casinos can get into the governor’s office, but we can’t!” yelled one sign-carrying protester (“Democracy is a beautiful thing. Casinos are not.”). “We don’t have enough money to see him.”
In lieu of the governor himself, protesters brought along a large papier-mâché Rendell head (the governor “is a puppet for the casinos,” some of the gathered shouted) as a target for their voiced concerns.
“You can’t build a casino in a vacuum,” said Daniel Hunter, a leader for the group. “They accumulate the profits, but disperse the costs. It is not a straightforward economic engine.”
The organization contends that “hidden costs” in the form of additional police, municipal services, reductions in property values, opportunity costs, regulation fees and other losses mean an annual net cost to the city budget of $52 million. That’s assuming roughly $75.8 million in benefits through host fees, increases in non-casino tax revenues and state-funded cuts via wage tax reduction. The total in the “likely” costs column is $127.8 million.
In compiling the 21-page report, the organization used a “survey approach” by bringing together data from various sources, including the Philadelphia Gaming Advisory Task Force, the Nutter administration, Hallwatch.org and Frederic Murphy, a Temple University economist.
“It’s a little sad that we had to do it ourselves,” Hunter said.
“What we’re doing today is asking Rendell to address the numbers,” said Lily Cavanagh, 23, a West Philadelphia organizer who has been working on the Casino-Free campaign for five months.
The general sentiment among the protesters is that Rendell is the goat to Mayor Michael Nutter’s hero, especially after Nutter’s recent stated position that the city never had the power to grant the proposed SugarHouse Casino the right to build on the Delaware River’s submerged (riparian) lands. [ link: http://www.planphilly.com/node/2949 ]
Hunter told reporters and the crowd of about 50 or 60 people a sobering story to illustrate his point about hidden costs. He cited a recent suicide attempt at Philadelphia Park, the horseracing track that is now a “racino” since it acquired slot machines in a room the size of a warehouse.
Dispatching police to the scene starts the meter running, he said. Getting the patient to the emergency room incurs municipal costs, which increase when he is incarcerated. Subsequent court and trial costs run up the tab further, along with rehabilitation funded by taxpayers.
“This economic social cost has been mostly ignored or minimized,” the report states, adding that the organization tapped the Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center for additional figures.
Several Philadelphia Police officers from the Civil Affairs Unit were on hand in plain clothes from the beginning of the march. Lt. Dennis Konczyk said the Casino-Free group presented no problems during previous demonstrations. He and other officers helped to briefly halt traffic while the protesters walked along 15th Street and Walnut Street before arriving on Broad Street.
Representatives from several neighborhood organizations were present at the rally, including Debbie Scoblionkov, a writer from Northern Liberties. “It’s terrible,” she said, her hand on her heart. “It’s just … it’s my neighborhood.”