Photo courtesy of Brad Maule at Phillyskyline
Aug. 28, 2009
By Thomas J. Walsh
HARRISBURG – The troubled Foxwoods Philadelphia Casino, if it ever does open its doors, will do so on Columbus Boulevard, state officials mandated on Friday.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board convened to hear a petition from Foxwoods for a two-year extension of its gaming license, which it ultimately granted, with what could be rather strict conditions.
Foxwoods petitioned for the reprieve after many delays caused by friction with city officials during the past three years, questions of the location of the casino, several lawsuits, the appointment of a special master to oversee the approvals process and a frozen economic environment for development loans.
“I can’t reiterate enough the concern of the board [about] any further discussion on a relocation,” said Gaming Control Board Chairman Gregory Fajt, shortly before the board voted 7-0 to grant the extension. “You were given a license for Columbus Boulevard. You were given a license for a facility that you showed in front of this board – a big dog-and-pony show of what that facility would look like.
“We all … understand that times change. But I cannot say it enough – say it emphatically enough – that we expect that facility to be on Columbus Boulevard and be substantially similar to what was presented to this board.”
As for other considered locations at the Gallery and the old Strawbridge’s department store at 801 market Street, Fajt was unequivocal: “I’m telling you, it’s a fool’s errand. We expect you to get this facility up and running. You owe it to the taxpayers of this Commonwealth waiting for tax relief. … You owe it to the people who are looking for jobs in the Philadelphia area.”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said he was “disappointed” with the ruling. “My administration has been working diligently with both Foxwoods and Sugarhouse over the last year and today’s news is a step backwards,” Nutter said, in a statement. “The fact is that the Delaware waterfront is a bad site for the Foxwoods casino. It was a bad site a year ago, and it remains a bad site today.”
Nutter said his support of the 8th and Market site was based on a location that will allow for the fastest start of operations and because it would allow “greatly needed tax revenues almost immediately.”
The official petition was “a motion to consider the petition of Philadelphia Entertainment & Development Partners, L.P. (Foxwoods) for additional time to make slots available.” Fajt and other commissioners, along with GCB enforcement officers, grilled Foxwoods Chief Executive Brian Ford and his attorneys for more than an hour, demanding to know why permits had not yet been pulled, plans not submitted and a final location settled upon, despite the economic environment.
Fajt said he expects quick movement by Foxwoods, demonstrated clearly to the GCB, “or we will yank the license.”
Members of Casino-Free Philadelphia were present again in the small hearing room, with signs and chants urging the board to, “Pull the plug!” Several protesters were warned repeatedly by Fajt to stop the interruptions. None were escorted out.
“I think they’re a year too late” in holding Foxwoods’ feet to the fire, said Helen Gym, a leader of Asian Americans United and a vocal opponent of any casinos in the city of Philadelphia. “The casino industry has tanked, the Foxwoods tribal nation is facing financial collapse, and there’s been no movement at all for Foxwoods [Philadelphia] internally.”
Foxwoods Chief Executive Officer Brian Ford and the partnership’s attorney Fred Jacoby gave the board a detailed timeline of events leading up to their request for an extension, along with multiple assurances of a firm commitment to honoring their original license. “We have always proceeded in good faith,” said Jacoby.
Ford, perhaps sensing before the hearing where the board was leaning, said at the outset that, “We are not here to address re-location.” He detailed the litany of legal actions and back-and-forth “political wrangling,” particularly with the Nutter administration, and eventually, “confronted with an uncooperative local government,” saw development pushed back to the point that the partnership found itself in the fall of 2008, when the credit markets evaporated.
Eventually, three representatives of the GCB’s Office of Enforcement Counsel were invited to ask questions regarding the worthiness of the extension request. One officer, Dale Miller, did not mince words, asking straight away if Ford was “fully committed” to building the Foxwoods casino on the site originally approved by the GCB in 2006.
“We’ve always been totally committed to the Columbus Boulevard site,” Ford said, “and only if we were to seek re-location, in which we would come back to this board, would we change that commitment.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound like a full commitment,” Miller shot back.
Things went downhill from there for the Foxwoods team. Miller asked repeatedly for Ford to confirm that Foxwoods currently has no financing for the casino and no plans. Ford responded by speaking mostly of the dire market conditions, and that plans-of-development would begin once an extension was granted, and only with plan in hands could they then seek financing again.
Miller’s colleague Cyrus Pitre recommended to the board that it accept a set of 10 conditions to impose upon Foxwoods if it was to receive the two-year license extension.
The conditions are “certain benchmarks that we would like to see them meet,” Pitre said to Fajt. “Once we start moving forward with this, there are certain things that are going to have to be done in a certain timeframe in order to ensure that the facility is up and operating by May 2011.”
It is unclear is the board adopted the recommendations, in whole or in part, because when the approval was read later on, they were not mentioned. All were with the stipulation that the actiong occur related to the Columbus Boulevard location and no other. Miller read them into the record:
1. That within 30 days Foxwoods provide the board with a written plan of how it would get 1,500 slots up and running by May 2011
2. Provide written, monthly updates to the GCB’s Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement about its progress
3. Written, monthly updates to the GCB’s Bureau of Investigations about Foxwoods’ efforts to obtain financing
4. Within six months provide a full financing plan
5. Within three months, submit all architectural renderings, artists renderings, conceptual proposals, engineering opinions, any and all other construction documents related to the facility; and provide a detailed timeline for commencement and completion for all phases of the facility
6. Provide written, monthly updates to the GCB’s Bureau of Investigations regarding all licenses, certifications and permits required by all city, state, federal or other agencies
7. Provide regular updates to the board regarding development plans, construction and community meetings
8. Make the board and the Bureau of Investigations aware as soon as possible about any impending change in ownership, control, financial status
9. Within six months, demonstrate to the board’s satisfaction that is has obtained use and occupancy permits and other necessary licenses
10. Meet and negotiate with all interested groups in the community to discuss and offer those groups participation and agreements to lessen the impact of the negative impacts of the casino and maximize the positive aspects
Jacoby said he had no problem, substantively, with the demands, but the time “arbitrary” constraints could pose a problem, might be unrealistic and in some instances were beyond Foxwoods’ control.
“Without some sort of timeframe in mind with those conditions, we could be languishing here for the next year and a half,” said Pitre.
As for number 10, “We’re certainly committed to working with the community,” Jacoby said. “I’m just concerned that with the wording of this, sort of puts a very difficult ax over our heads in our negotiations.”
GCB commissioners Kenneth McCabe, Sanford Rivers and Gary Sojka then all asked lengthy, direct questions of Ford and Jacoby, akin to Fajt’s concerns.
“One of my concerns is that we’re talking about the biggest city in the Commonwealth,” said Rivers. “When we voted [in 2006], we voted for something very specific. … You made a commitment to this board and the people of the Commonwealth, and we’re going to hold your feet to the fire.”
Implications of the Foxwoods Philadelphia Casino returning to its intended site along the Delaware River Waterfront could be messy, given the rock that the state gaming board has made itself for the partnership, and the hard place that the Nutter administration and riverfront development groups have been in their strident disapproval of that location to date.
Foxwoods’ original plans for Columbus Boulevard, which the GCB seems determined to hold them to, called for a $670-million facility, with more than a half million square feet for the casino alone, along with restaurants, shops and a hotel.
“It is unclear what effect this ruling has on the viability of this project,” Nutter said. “The development timeline and the 10 requirements detailed by the Board are very demanding and, given the challenges that they have faced to date, there are real questions as to whether Foxwoods can meet those standards.”
Whether or not the ship has sailed has yet to be determined, evidently. But the USS Foxwoods is returning to its home port, to be greeted by no small amount of fireworks.
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