After five-hour hearing, plans for South Philly casino advance to City Council

 Anthony Ricci, head of Parx Casino, speaks during a zoning hearing for the proposed Live! Hotel and Casino in South Philly. Protesters used the hearing to accuse Parx's partner, the Cordish Co., of racial discrimination.  (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Anthony Ricci, head of Parx Casino, speaks during a zoning hearing for the proposed Live! Hotel and Casino in South Philly. Protesters used the hearing to accuse Parx's partner, the Cordish Co., of racial discrimination. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Despite objections from some civil rights advocates, a City Council committee advanced a proposal to build a hotel and casino complex in South Philadelphia.

The move is seen as a victory for Baltimore-based Cordish Co., which has been hit with accusations from former workers at sites in Kansas City and Louisville that the company kicked out or banned black customers. In some instances, former staffers allege that Cordish hired white patrons, known as “rabbits,” to create disturbances that would lead to a black customer getting tossed out of the venue.

Cordish, however, contends that those allegations, described in federal discrimination lawsuits, are the claims of only a handful of upset customers and former workers. The company, Cordish officials said on Monday, is devoted to diversity both among its customers and on its staff.

Last November, the state’s gaming control board awarded a casino license to the Cordish-led project, representing the fifth casino in the Philly area and 13th in the state.

At Monday’s meeting, dozens of employees of Parx Casino, which operates a casino in Bensalem, were in the audience, sometimes holding up signs touting the economic benefits of the proposed project. Parx is Cordish’s partner on the $450 million casino project in South Philly.

Detractors of the casino plan who spoke at the Monday hearing were mostly aligned with the Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network. Chairwoman Paula Peebles said “ill will toward a race of people oozes from the entry doors of their facilities.”

Peebles said her group is pro-casino development in the city, but Cordish in particular has a troubling track record.  

“Why should we, as a city, settle on racism in order to satisfy some personal goal of a feather in a cap of an elected official as they depart office? She said. “Would this be reasonable to the African-Americans who reside in this city?” 

Maya Williamson, former hostess at a venue owned by Cordish in Louisville, testified that a former manager approved of blatant racism when she worked there last year.

“They have told us that they are bad for business, they interfere with the white customers,” Williamson said. “And the way they treated my fiancé, and everything, they should not be able to treat him, or any of my friends, that way,” she said, tearing up in front of the Council members.

Cordish’s CEO Joe Weinberg responded by saying that “someone making an allegation doesn’t make it true.”

Several other business and community groups then came to the support of Cordish, including the city’s black clergy and NACCP chapter, both of which have cleared Cordish of racial bias.

Cordish, which also controls Xfinity Live! In South Philadelphia, has agreed to work with a diversity oversight board to help implement a number of diversity goals at the casino.

Councilman Bill Greenlee, who chairs the rules committee, said hearing from the company seems to have satisfied the panel’s questions about Cordish.

“It wasn’t like we made a quick decision. We listened for five hours on both sides, and we feel there is enough support for this organization, and they answered enough of our questions, to move forward,” he said.

Officials from Cordish said a security subcontractor created the controversial dress code rules in other cities, and that there are no such restrictions planned for the Philadelphia casino.

The full City Council is expected to vote on the project in the coming weeks.

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