PGCB time change flap, more blame game

April 3, 2009

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The starting time of Wednesday’s Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board meeting – at which SugarHouse and Foxwoods casino interests have been asked to detail why they have yet to open – has been moved up from 11 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

The switch angered some local activists who plan to show up by the busload and believe the time change was made to discourage Philadelphia residents from making the trip to Harrisburg. But the Control Board says the change was necessary to get other business out of the way, and the Philadelphia casino discussion won’t happen until about 11 a.m.

“We find it already shameful that the PGCB plans to hold a public meeting on Philadelphia casinos outside our city,” says a press statement released by Asian Americans United on Friday. “In addition, the PGCB has announced that there will be no opportunity for public comment. But this latest move further demonstrates PGCB’s determination to thwart public participation.”

Gaming Control Board spokesman Doug Harbach said the PGCB has a full agenda, and so it decided to start early so the meeting doesn’t run too late. The items not related to SugarHouse and Foxwoods will be dealt with first, he said, and so the discussion that many from Philadelphia want to hear “is not going to happen until 11 or later, anyway,” he said.

AAU also questions why there will be no public comment period. Harbach said this is standard procedure at a regular board meeting. The Board has held regular meetings outside of Harrisburg, Harbach said, but that involves spending state money on travel and overnight accomodations – expenses that won’t be incurred during this budget crunch. If this was a hearing on a petition regarding a Philadelphia casino, the meeting would be held in Philadelphia, he said. Hearings also include time for public comment period.

“If (a Philadelphia casino) requests a significant change to the condition of their license, such as moving to a different location, we will come into the city,” he said.

A hearing is likely on the horizon for both SugarHouse and Foxwoods. SugarHouse’s operating license expired late last year. The casino has asked for an extension. There will be a hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, before the board makes a decision.

Foxwoods’ operating license will expire this summer. Foxwoods’ license is for a site at Columbus Boulevard and Reed Street, along the riverfront in South Philadelphia. But under pressure from the city, Foxwoods agreed to explore an alternative location: Either at the Burlington Coat Factory or the former Strawbridge’s site at Market East.

City officials once hoped to persuade SugarHouse to move off of the waterfront, too. But they have recently said they have given up that effort, and now hope to convince the casino to make some design changes that will make the slots operation more compatible with the city’s long-term goals for waterfront development.

Harbach said he tried to reach Casino-Free Philadelphia this morning to alert them of the reasons for the time change Wednesday, and that State Rep. Michael O’Brien was trying to reach AAU board member Helen Gym.

Both casinos have blamed city government for delays in construction. Each took that argument to the State Supreme Court. The administration denies stalling and says it wants to get SugarHouse and Foxwoods up and running as quickly as possible. The High Court sided with the casinos in both cases and appointed a Special Master to act as a go-between as the casinos deal with the city.

Friday afternoon, O’Brien and Sen. Lawrence Farnese announced that they wrote to the Gaming Control Board with their observations on why Philadelphia does not yet have an open casino.

The Board should blame the casinos, not the city or others who “have intervened on behalf of affected residents” for the delays, a press statement says.

Both lawmakers oppose the board-approved riverfront locations for SugarHouse and Foxwoods and are working to have the casinos relocated to other sites within Philadelphia.
In their letter, O’Brien and Farnese elaborated on various permits the gaming operators have not received for their sites. “Sugarhouse has chosen its location, a location fraught with problems which seems to have no end in sight,” the letter states.

The letter says Foxwoods’ original chosen location also has many problems, and the legislators are pleased that Foxwoods is now focused on a new location.

But Asian Americans United, Casino-Free Philadelphia, and other groups that have fought against the casinos hate the Market East site, too. They say that just like the waterfront sites, Market East is too close to residential neighborhoods.

The location of Wednesday’s Gaming Control Board meeting remains the same:The State Museum Auditorium at 303 North Street in Harrisburg. The PGCB moved the meeting to the auditorium in expectation of a large crowd.

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