Foxwoods’ task timetable is tight

Sept. 4

Previous coverage

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Now back on the Delaware Riverfront, Foxwoods Casino is developing a new, cheaper design for an interim slots parlor, and it needs to come up with a plan in a hurry.

Last Friday, when the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board granted the casino a two-year extension to get at least 1,500 slots machines up and running, it included a string of deadlines that the Foxwoods partners must meet.  It’s not just that the PGCB wants to see the design by December, it’s that so much else – from financing to permits to a construction timeline – depends on that design.

Foxwoods does not have financing in place, and spokeswoman Maureen Garrity said the partners could not yet seek financing because that “depends on design approvals” from Philadelphia. The gaming board wants written, monthly updates about Foxwoods’ attempts to gain financing starting Oct. 1. And it wants the financing to be completely nailed down by March 1.

A point of “concern” – and at times incredulity – on the part of several gaming control board commissioners at the Aug. 28 hearing was the fact that Foxwoods had never picked up its zoning and use permit from the city, which Foxwoods officials referred to several times as “the gatekeeper” permit.

The State Supreme Court has ordered the city to give Foxwoods its permits, and has appointed a special master to oversee the process. Counsel for Foxwoods told the board the permit hadn’t been pulled in deference to a cooperative effort between the city and casino to move Foxwoods to the former Strawbridge’s building – a site the Nutter administration finds more beneficial to the city, and where Foxwoods officials believed they could be up and running quicker, and at less cost.

Near the end of last week’s hearing, Commissioner Kenneth McCabe leaned forward into the microphone, speaking directly to Brian Ford, president of Washington Philadelphia Investors – the local investment group. “I would suggest to you that if we award you the extension, Monday morning you’re pulling that permit,” McCabe said, leaning back in his chair.
“Thank you,” Ford said.

But that permit – which relates to the old Foxwoods plan – has not been pulled.

“One typically requests the permits when all approvals are set and one is about to begin construction,” Ford said Thursday in a message sent through a spokesman. “We are not yet at that point.”

By mid-November, Foxwoods must provide the PGCB with a written plan explaining how it intends to make 1,500 slots available on the riverfront by May 29, 2011. Foxwoods must submit written, monthly progress reports about that goal, starting Oct. 1. Also starting Oct. 1, the PGCB wants monthly reports on permits. By Dec. 1, Foxwoods must submit a timeline detailing when each phase of development will stop and start.

“We’ve got a timeline to adhere to, and we’re marching forward,” Garrity said.

So what happens if the conditions aren’t met? “It’s too early to make any kind of a plan on what would occur should the license be yanked,” said gaming control board spokesman Doug Harbach. But generally, he said, if any licensed casino in the state did not work out, the board would re-issue the license through a public process.

For now, Harbach said, the PGCB is focused on Foxwoods. “We are concentrating on making sure Foxwoods obligates themselves to the conditions placed on the extension, that we’re receiving the reports requested, and that they’re truly moving forward with project on the river.”

Garrity didn’t know when Foxwoods’ new design will be completed, and she could not offer many details about what it would, or would not, include.  It must be cheaper, she said, as “the financial landscape has changed.”  But she said Foxwoods will also meet the board’s requirement that the new plan be “substantially similar” to the original.

A key piece of the new plan will be an interim facility. This is what Foxwoods hopes to have up and running by the new deadline. It won’t be a temporary facility – tents, for example – Garrity said. Rather, it will be similar to the SugarHouse redesign that has already received the city’s blessing, a permanent structure that will later be incorporated into a bigger project.

Just like with SugarHouse, the new design will need to go before the Planning Commission for approval.  Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger could not be reached for comment for this article.

“The mayor has made clear his opposition to a Foxwoods casino on the waterfront,” said Luke Butler, a spokesman for Michael Nutter.  But, especially considering the Supreme Court order, what can the city do about it?

“Certainly, the city will have some control over new plan of development,” said Brian Abernathy, director of policy for First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, who opposes the waterfront site. But neither the administration nor city council can keep the casino off the waterfront. “I don’t think council is willing to chance a contempt of the court order,” Abernathy said.

For now, Butler said, the city is continuing to do what it has done since September 2008, when Foxwoods agreed to move off the waterfront, and announced plans to move to Market Street: “We’re still in the same position of waiting to hear more from Foxwoods,” said Butler.

“The city doesn’t issue state permits or federal permits,” said Mary Isaacson, chief of staff for state Rep. Michael O’Brien, who also opposes the waterfront site.

Isaacson said Foxwoods will need permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and from the state related to issues stemming from the location – the site is along the river, in the flood plain, and there is not  adequate water/sewer infrastructure in place.

“It’s an un-developable site,” Isaacson said.

While Foxwoods disagrees, Isaacson and O’Brien also believe Foxwoods needs a riparian, or submerged lands, permit. These permits, which allow use of land at the river that is owned by the commonwealth, have traditionally required an act of the legislature.

The city of Philadelphia granted riparian rights to SugarHouse during the John Street administration, and while the Nutter administration did not think that license was valid, the Supreme Court held it up as legal. The state legislature has since passed laws reaffirming its exclusive right to grant the permits.

Isaacson also notes that the federal permits require Foxwoods to do a historical review of the site. The casino interest completed one phase before switching focus to Market East, she said, but at least one more is required.

All along the way, “the opposition will be there in full force,” Isaacson said.

The opposition has been buzzing since the gaming control board sent the casino plan back to the riverfront. And some of that buzz is actually pretty upbeat.

“Foxwoods has been granted the extension, but the conditions are stringent, particularly considering the time lines and the economy,” said Rene Goodwin, a board member of Pennsport Civic Association.

“I don’t think Foxwoods can meet them,” said Northern Liberties Neighbors Association Vice President Debbie King.

Jethro Heiko, co-founder of Casino-Free Philadelphia, said that any potential financing institution will have to consider not only the state of the economy, but casino saturation. Not only are there several other casinos open or planned near Foxwoods in Pennsylvania, but nearby states also have gambling in the works, he said. They’ll be fighting over customers, so they’ll all be less profitable than projected, he said, adding that he hopes the state legislature will study this and conclude that Pennsylvania shouldn’t open more slots parlors.

Casino-Free will keep up the pressure and protests, he said, because that, too, can give an investor second thoughts.  “When there’s strong citizen organizing and opposition – investors don’t like that,” Heiko said.

Goodwin is also a board member of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group – an organization comprised of representatives from waterfront communities that supports for the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware. The Civic Vision calls for public trails, green space, a mix of development types, and reconnecting the city’s neighborhoods to the waterfront by extending the street grid.  It was created after more than a year of public input, and the city administration has endorsed it.

Goodwin believes the vision would be adversely impacted if there are two casinos on the waterfront. “It’s not the direction in which many hoped it would go,” she said. And that’s a big reason she’ll keep fighting.

She attended a Thursday night meeting of the Philadelphia Neighborhood Alliance – a coalition of civic groups that oppose casinos. She said it’s still too early for PNA to know its plan – or for her to discuss it – other than to say it will be part of the process that Foxwoods must go through whenever possible.

Like Isaacson, Goodwin said she feels time is not on Foxwoods’ side.

“Have you ever tried to speed up a state or a federal process?” she asked. “Some don’t move fast because they are complex, and you can’t do them faster. There is no express line.”

Time has been on the activists’ side: Delay has always been a key part of their strategy.  And on Sept. 15, they will celebrate at Casino-Free’s headquarters, across the street from the Strawbridge’s site. “It’s a party to celebrate the last three years of delay,” Heiko said.

This story includes reporting by PlanPhilly reporter Thomas J. Walsh

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