By Kellie Patrick Gates
Foxwoods Casino officials are considering building their slots complex somewhere other than their chosen Columbus Boulevard site.
“They are actively exploring other sites that are not on the waterfront,” Mayor Michael Nutter said at an afternoon press conference following a meeting he, Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Vince Fumo and state representatives Dwight Evans and Bill Keller had with casino representatives.
Despite considerable opposition from neighborhood activists and pressure from elected officials, today was the first time Foxwoods has said it would consider other locations. “This is absolutely a positive step forward,” said Nutter, who does not think the casinos fit in with the city’s waterfront vision.
“It was a lot less contentious than I would have predicted,” Fumo said. It was he and Evans who called for the meeting on the evening of July 3, as legislators hammered out the state budget. That night, Fumo said the casinos could either willingly move or he and others would force them. Thursday afternoon, he said that “neither the carrot nor the stick” was needed, because Foxwoods officials came to the meeting saying they would look at other sites. Fumo said they seem to have realized that the way to get up and running was to move, and that staying put would equal more delay and lost revenue.
But in a written statement, Foxwoods Spokeswoman Maureen Garrity seemed to be describing a meeting with a different tenor.
“We have shared with City and State officials the obstacles that resiting would entail,” Garrity wrote. “Following those discussions we have agreed, in principle, to consider other alternative sites and ways that we can mutually overcome those obstacles. We are committed to continuing those discussions, while preserving our rights to the South Columbus Boulevard site.”
Rendell and others did use cautious language at times: “Nothing is sure or certain here,” Rendell said. “Are they going to go to a new site? I can’t say definitively. But the good news is they are considering them.”
The elected officials holding the press conference said that Foxwoods is considering a number of alternative sites, all within the city limits. In addition to not being on the waterfront, none of the sites would violate existing state law that establishes minimum distances from existing casinos, they said.
Fumo said that no state money would be offered to compensate the casino for a move.
Rendell said he did not know which sites are under consideration because the casino officials did not disclose that information.
“When we know, you’ll know. We do not know,” he said.
This was not enough for a group of anti-casino activists who picketed the meeting at 1735 Market Street with signs that said “Ed: Don’t Ask, Just Tell.”
“It’s good that they are considering a move, but they shouldn’t be the ones in charge of the process,” said Casino-Free Philadelphia member and attorney Paul Boni.
The state legislature voted in casinos without public input, and the current sites of both Foxwoods and SugarHouse – the other proposed casino – were also chosen without citizen comment. “This should be an open and transparent process with the public involved,” he said. But instead, so far it seems Foxwoods has the reigns – the elected officials don’t even know what sites they are considering.
“One might even think the Planning Commission is the one to decide a land use issue – and then make a recommendation to City Council.”
When asked at the press conference about transparency issues, Rendell said that most of the people who say they are upset about the transparency of the process are really just upset about the proposed casino locations, and they would not care about the process at all if the casinos were to be built elsewhere.
That irked resident Janet Cullen, who said citizens should have had a say about whether or not any casinos would be located here – she doesn’t want any.
Nutter said that if Foxwoods were to move, the new site would need to be rezoned as a Commercial Entertainment District. The public would have input while the Planning Commission and then City Council worked on the CED, he said.
Evans said there was “an awful lot of work that has to happen over the next few weeks.” Rendell said that work starts Friday. The leaders at the meeting will all appoint staffers to a working committee that will work toward hammering out an agreement. Fumo said after the press conference that the results will be in next month.
Foxwoods’ current site was approved by the state Gaming Control Board. If the casino agreed to move to a different location, they would need to ask the GCB for approval.
The GCB considered location when it chose the two winners. When asked if a move might prompt groups who lost their bids to operate a casino to demand reconsideration or sue to get it, Fumo and Rendell said they were not worried.
Fumo, whose legislative council, Christopher Craig, wrote the legislation, said that there were ways to resite without re-opening the bids.
Rendell, himself a laywer, said “Of course you can sue, but the real question is, can you win?” The losing applicants would not, he implied.
The Philadelphia Neighborhood Alliance (PNA), a coalition of 27 civic organizations committed to re-siting the proposed casinos, was pleased at the result of Thursday’s meeting.
“To achieve their full revenue projections without prolonged delay, both casinos should take this spirit or cooperation from the City and State to heart,” said Matt Ruben of Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. “We support the Mayor’s efforts to move forward with the Penn Praxis “Civic Vision” plan for the waterfront.”
The elected leaders also want to talk to SugarHouse about moving, but SugarHouse officials were not at Thursday’s meeting. Rendell said scheduling had proven difficult, but he hoped a similar meeting with officials from the other casino would happen shortly after Labor Day. SugarHouse Spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker could not be reached for comment.
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