March 31, 2010
By Kellie Patrick Gates
Foxwoods Casino filed its financing plan with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s enforcement arm on Wednesday, meeting a crucial deadline.
Neither Foxwoods attorney Fred Jacoby nor PGCB spokesman Doug Harbach would release or discuss the document, saying it contains information confidential under Pennsylvania gaming law.
At a gaming control board meeting earlier this month, billionaire Steve Wynn, pitching his ideas and commitment for the project to the board, quipped that he could write a check for the full cost of the project on the spot. He also said he was confident he could secure financing from banks he has good relationships with.
Foxwoods and Wynn have not yet filed a change of control petition asking the board to put Wynn at the helm, yet his unofficial presence seems to have changed the game for the project.
Before Wynn came along, Foxwoods was in real trouble with the gaming board, which was threatening to revoke its license for failure to provide a financial plan, site plans, drawings and other information by a Dec. 1 deadline. Foxwoods sought an extension.
The board instead levied a $2,000-per-day fine, an installment of which was paid earlier this month, prior to Wynn’s pitch. Board members liked what they saw, but told Wynn and the Foxwoods team to deliver a complete financial plan by today, and turn in the rest of the missing information by April 26.
The board will have the site plans, drawings and other remaining documents ahead of schedule, said Wynn spokeswoman Maureen Garrity.
New design, new name
If the Board allows Wynn to take over at Foxwoods, the South Philadelphia casino likely won’t be called Foxwoods anymore, Garrity said.
For now, she said, Foxwoods remains the name. “Wynn’s name is not on it at this time,” she said in an email earlier this week.
But Wynn’s name is front-and-center on a conceptual drawing of the Philadelphia casino posted by Las Vegas blogger Steve Friess at VegasHappensHere.com. Friess says Wynn showed him the sketch during an interview last week.
“The plans that have been circulating are early concept drawings, they are continuing to be refined and they were not authorized for release by the company,” Garrity said.
When asked how that could be, when Mr. Wynn himself showed Friess the drawings, Garrity said, “Showing preliminary drawings and authorizing release are two different things.”
Friess said in a phone interview Monday evening that Wynn brought a group of renderings to lunch. “When I asked if I could keep them, he said no,” Friess said. “But he pulled out one of them, and he stood by while I took a photograph of it. It was my understanding that image was for my use as a journalist. Mr. Wynn now says it was a misunderstanding.”
Monday evening, Friess removed the image at Wynn’s request and updated his post with an explanation of why he did so.
The image shows a white building with many columns. A large glass bubble on the top suggests an atrium. “During our interview, he laid out photographs of the podium of the Encore property in Macau next to renderings of the Philadelphia property and made note of very specific design similarities between the two,” Friess said. Wynn told the gaming control board in early March that he planned to draw on his new Macau property for the Foxwoods design.
How different is it?
Some board members said his design sounded a lot different from what they approved when Foxwoods received its operating license, and they cautioned him to keep any new plans significantly similar to the old ones.
From the preliminary drawing, it looks like Wynn is doing just that on the outside of the building, said Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, the practical arm of the Penn school of design.
He wishes that weren’t so.
“It looks…like the old building with a new skin. A new dress. It’s still a long, low-slung building with a big carport that sits back from the street, across a big lawn,” Steinberg said. “There doesn’t seem to be any change other than some of the exterior decoration.”
PennPraxis oversaw the creation of the city’s Vision for the Central Delaware – a description of what Philadelphians want from their river – after more than a year of public engagement. “From the sketch, which is a limited view, there does not seem to be any attempt to meet the goals of the civic vision: A smaller footprint, buildings that come up to street edge with lively uses, access to the riverfront and clear, city-block intervals,” Steinberg said.
Wynn said during a break at the gaming control board meeting earlier this month that he had not heard of the Vision.
Weixler, chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group – an organization made up of representatives from civic and other waterfront groups – said Wednesday that he would like Wynn to be more educated about the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware.
But at their last meeting, CDAG members were torn about reaching out to Wynn, and tabled the issue. Weixler said the discussion would be reopened if and when Wynn is granted control of the casino project.
CDAG has no comment on the preliminary drawing, he said, unless and until Wynn gets a license transfer and a formal design proposal, including site plans, is submitted to the gaming control board. It is the site plan, he said, that would really show how well or poorly the casino meets the goals of the civic vision, he said. For example, Weixler said, it would reveal the project’s impact on the riverfront trail and Columbus Boulevard.
The project renderings that the Foxwoods/Wynn team delivers to the gaming control board could be quite different from the early version Wynn showed Friess, the Las Vegas blogger, Garrity said.
PlanPhilly requested an interview with Wynn, but he’s not interested just yet. “Mr. Wynn looks forward to speaking with the media at a later date but right now prefers to pay attention to proper protocol,” Garrity said. “Out of respect for the PGCB, those efforts will remain our priorities.”
The gaming control board originally chose the Foxwoods team in part because of the gaming experience held by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. But the Tribe, which has faced financial difficulties, has had less and less involvement with the Philadelphia project. Wynn obviously has lots of gaming experience as well.
While the change of control petition has yet to be filed, critics have already argued that such a switch is too big, and that the licensing process should be started over, and open to other potential candidates.
Some gaming board members have said that a change of control request from Wynn and Foxwoods would be very similar to that filed by Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino. In 2008, another billionaire investor, Chicago’s Neil Bluhm, was given the reins at Rivers, taking over for Detroit businessman Don Barden. Philadelphians may recognize Bluhm’s name, as he is also chief investor at SugarHouse Casino, now under construction in Fishtown.
A change of control petition would require a public hearing in Philadelphia. So would a table games petition. (SugarHouse has filed a table games petition, and hopes to open with table games late this summer. A hearing has not been scheduled yet.)
The board first heard that Wynn wanted to become Foxwoods’ financial savior before he appeared before them earlier this month.
They read about it in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Several board members said this displeased them greatly.
Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board spokesman Harbach said Monday that the board has not received any sketches from Wynn, but he did not express any concern that a preliminary drawing is in the public domain.
“While this drawing may be out there, we are looking for formal designs and those are not due until later in April,” he said in an email.
Journalist Steve Friess recently interviewed Wynn designer Roger Thomas about plans for Philly and other topics. Click here to hear a podcast. Scroll down to March 7: Wynn’s design Alter Ego.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com