Civil rights group asks Council to delay zoning change for South Philly casino

A civil rights group says allegations of racial discrimination against a casino development company need a closer look.

The Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network wants City Council to hold off on approving zoning changes for the proposed Live! Hotel and Casino in South Philadelphia, and to conduct its own investigation into the allegations against Cordish Companies, which received a license to operate the casino late last year.

The National Action Network (NAN), founded by Rev. Al Sharpton, decided to look into the allegations against Cordish after the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity released a report saying the group had not found credible evidence of discrimination.

In a press conference outside City Hall on Tuesday morning, Paula Peebles, chairwoman of the local NAN chapter, said her group did a more thorough investigation than the Black Clergy by actually talking with former employees and patrons of Cordish casinos who had lodged discrimination complaints.

“These employees, these patrons are real human beings,” Peebles said.

In a report released Tuesday, NAN outlined some of the allegations:

  • Cordish management explicitly directed employees to limit the number of black people in the casino;

  • At its properties in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Missouri, the company enforced a dress code selectively in order to keep out African Americans;

  • The company hired white patrons to start fights with black patrons as a pretext for ejecting the black patrons.

The company has said the allegations are false.

Peebles said the group is not opposed having another casino built in Philadelphia, but doesn’t want to invite a company with a history of racial discrimination to set up shop here. It wants City Council to investigate the allegations itself, and said that some of the former employees and patrons would be willing to testify at hearings here.

A zoning change is Council’s only leverage. Casinos can’t be built anywhere in the city that isn’t zoned specifically for gaming, and Council has the sole authority to change the zoning designation of the South Philly parcel in question, which is near the Sports Complex. The Daily News reported on Tuesday that members of City Council said they would defer to Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the area, to decide whether and when to introduce the zoning bill, following the tradition of Councilmanic Prerogative.

Johnson’s office said he had received a letter from NAN last Friday, at the same time it was released to the press.

“Although I just received the full report today, I take these concerns very seriously, and will ensure that we fully examine them during the process,” Johnson said on Tuesday in a statement sent to PlanPhilly. “I was encouraged recently by the report of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity that looked closely at the Cordish Company and found no basis for claims of racial insensitivity. This casino presents Philadelphia with a great economic development opportunity, but we must ensure that the operation will be fair and equitable.”


Assuming Johnson wants to hold out on the zoning change, could he hold out forever?

In 2007, former Councilman Frank DiCicco held out on introducing zoning for Sugarhouse to open on the Delaware River in Fishtown. After a delay, outgoing at-large Councilman Juan Ramos introduced the zoning bill in a rare break with Councilmanic Prerogative. Ramos said at the time that Sugarhouse represented an opportunity for economic development that couldn’t be passed up.

It’s not clear that any current Council members would have an appetite to override Johnson, should he decide to delay the zoning change. But that position, should he choose to take it, could be legally precarious. In a 2007 decision, the state Supreme Court effectively forced the city to rezone the Sugarhouse property after Council delayed introducing the bills.

Assuming Johnson introduces the rezoning bill this fall, Council’s Committee on Rules would hold hearings on the legislation. Johnson hasn’t said yet how involved those hearings will be.

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