aNUTTER failure

Although Chicago rivals Philadelphia in corruption — the Windy City is opposed to casinos and yet was able to transform their waterfront and garner national attention without gambling. Even in tough economic times Chicago’s notoriously corrupt Mayor Daley is clear on his views about casinos in Chicago. He recently held a press conference to dispell any rumors that sites identified for Chicago's Olympic bid might now be developed into casinos ....

MAYOR DALEY: “I don’t know why everybody is going around thinking that casinos are the answer to all the problems of society”
REPORTER: “So no way, no how?”
MAYOR DALEY: “I would be against it completely”

Deal? What deal? But the casino circus still rolls into Council

So, let's recap here:

  • For months, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), chaired by Rendell BFF Ron Rubin, has been claiming that they own the Strawbridge's building which they intend to lease to themselves via Foxwoods casino, whose lead investor is Ron Rubin's "charitable trust."
  • errr . . . they lied. OK they fudged facts since they are actually owners of Strawbridge's Unit A.
  • BUT the bill passed through committee and will be read in Council this morning anyway!

Now for the record, the Councilman promised he wouldn't bring anything to a vote because why would you want to deal with this?

The Strawbridge Building is a commercial condominium. DiCicco is concerned that there is something in the ownership agreement that would prohibit the bottom floors from being used as a casino. He is also worried that Gramercy might take either PREIT or City Council to court if the CED legislation is passed. He also said Gramercy could potentially file a lawsuit alleging that the zoning change lessened the value of its property.

But it begs the question again, what was the Planning Commission doing when it whole-heartedly gave the project its endorsement a few weeks back? or when everyone from the Mayor to the Councilman applauded the move to Strawbridge's?

And while all of city leadership bucks process, it's interesting how one tenant can say the same thing that our city leaders ignored from 1,000 people, 25,000 petitions, and the dozens of groups who are part of the No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition - which is that no one, not even the co-owners of a building, really thinks that casinos are a viable form of economic development.

DAG: Economics has nothing to do with Market East casino

From the logic of Design Advocacy group president William Becker:

Whether or not you believe gambling is addictive, exploitative and immoral, or whether it is or isn't the financial engine that will shower desperately needed tax revenue onto our cash-strapped city, are questions that have nothing to do with location, and won't be addressed here.

Sheesh, who knew planners could dismiss their APA planning credentials so quickly? Maybe Mr. Becker forgot this part of the APA oath:

The planning process exists to serve the public interest. While the public interest is a question of continuous debate, both in its general principles and in its case-by-case applications, it requires a conscientiously held view of the policies and actions that best serve the entire community.

Foxwoods tribal chair convicted of felony-in violation of state law?

The relevant parts from Connecticut's The Day today:

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Michael Thomas, who was convicted in 1988 on drug-dealing charges, successfully cleared a Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board investigation in 2006 despite a state law prohibiting convicted felons from obtaining gaming licenses there.

Thomas and the rest of the Pequot Tribal Council all underwent key-employee background investigations as part of ongoing plans to build a Foxwoods-branded casino in Philadelphia.

The board issued a license to Foxwoods Development Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of the tribe, and its Pennsylvania partners in February 2007 and made no mention of Thomas' felony conviction in its decision. The tribe has a 30 percent interest in the casino and will manage it.

National Media Ridicule Nutter's $100 Million Casino Request as Pork

Last month, the Nutter administration submitted a $2.6 billion wish list to the Obama transition team. At the top of the money pile – ahead of new schools and a youth study center? The Market East/Foxwoods casino – coming in at a cool $167 million* (correction: $125 million).

Just because there’s no plan in place doesn’t stop the City from putting it forth. After all, here was Terry Gillen’s reason for including the Market East casino project:

"We just want to make sure the opportunity for funding doesn't go away just because the project's not ready to be defined," said Terry Gillen, executive director of the Redevelopment Authority and senior adviser to the mayor.

Well, it’s not just Philadelphians who aren’t sold on that kind of logic. Earlier this week, the national press, including the Washington Post and CNBC, took notice of this line item after GOP leaders flagged it as one of the top examples of a stimulus package that was pork barrel politics as usual:

My favorite line?
"The mayors are calling a lot of their projects shovel ready. The question might be asked is what it is that they’re actually shoveling."
But more seriously, Nutter’s delineation of $125 million for the casino is troubling because it’s the first time a ballpark number has been put on the potential cost of the Market East location.

Why Philadelphia can't afford casinos - and neither can PA

With President-elect Obama in town to figure out how to solve the nation’s budget crisis, here’s one suggestion: stop state-sponsored gambling.

There’s no question that this industry - whose proponents once crowed had a "license to print money" - has lost its lustre. With the economy in a tailspin, casinos don’t just drag their own industry down, they bring city budgets and people with them:


  • The City of New Haven has to fix a $500,000 budget hole after overly rosy gambling revenue projections didn’t meet their mark this year.
  • In July, the Natl. Conference of State Legislatures reported that specific conditions have dramatically impacted state budgets, noting that Nevada is particularly worried about gambling and its impact on state revenues.
  • Last year's PICA report warned that the city put itself at "financial risk" by not calculating the cost of casinos. They referred to sources which showed a range of costs of up to $200 million annually from gambling and the potential for net job losses based on employment studies from different states with gambling.

Faced with these concerns, what’s been the solution in other states?

More gambling of course – and don’t forget the booze and girls.

  • Twin River, RI is begging for table games to save the bankrupt slots house.
  • Foxwoods itself is seeking 24-hour alcohol service at its Connecticut casino to remain competitive. "You gotta be kidding me," said one local official in outrage.
  • But my favorite story is outta A.C.:

    "On Dec. 13, the casino will host the Running of The Santas, part of a nationwide bar tour in which participants don Santa hats, beards and suits, and do their own version of Pamplona's running of the bulls. Only at the head of this race will be Hooters girls."

    Yep. The running of the bulls only with creepy old men chasing down Hooter girls. Because it sounds fun. And oh yeah, it makes the casino money.

    "The holidays tend to have many businesses competing for customer attention," said Mark Giannantonio, president of the Tropicana Casino and Resort. "The light show, in addition to our decor, shopping, entertainment and focus on our guests throughout the season ... ultimately will give people a reason to choose Tropicana."

There’s always a sucker a minute when it comes to easy cash.

Just listen to Fishtown’s Maggie O’Brien, who commented about the recent inking of a $1.5 million deal between Sugarhouse and a group that formed ad hoc to negotiate a community benefits agreement (since no other established neighborhood association would):

And - be still, fibrillating hearts - up to $1.5 million a year to fund stuff that the community decides could use the dough.

Like a library, maybe? Or a swimming pool? Fire services? All are Fishtown amenities slated for closure.

"With $1.5 million, we could buy the library and run it ourselves," says Maggie O'Brien, president of Fishtown Action (FACT), a pro-casino neighborhood group that has co-signed the CBA (along with the New Kensington CDC). "We could keep the pool and firehouse."

She exhales angrily.

"It didn't have to come to this. If the casino was up and running, we might not be losing anything right now."

Fishtown deserves every bit of concern with all the closures in their community while a slots house tries to open up down the street. But beyond that, there’s nothing in O’Brien’s comments that are backed by economic or historical reality. In fact, an increasing number of studies show that just the opposite may be true – that gambling is a net loser for society rather than a win.

"A Question of Place": An essay on the power of community

With all the news about the library and pool closings and Chinatown’s fight against a Center City slots barn, one thread ties these struggles together – the love of community. These struggles aren’t so much against something as much as they are a powerful statement of the sanctity of sacred spaces in our neighborhoods, of the rare places where the fabric of community is built, where our relationships with one another are fostered and cherished, and where lessons and values are passed onto new generations. Our communities are the heart of civil society.

Recently, Philadelphian Debbie Wei wrote just about the best piece I’ve ever seen on the notion of community and struggle in an essay "A Question of Place" published in Asian Week. Here's an excerpt:

As Philadelphia’s Chinatown fights a proposed casino mere feet from its doorstep, I’ve been thinking a lot these days about why saving Chinatown means so much to me.

Several years ago my youngest son, who studied kung fu and Beijing Opera in Chinatown, told me: "My favorite place to be is Chinatown. I know everyone there. I can walk around and hang out. The guy in the laundromat always gives me candy and everyone knows I’m a lion dancer and the old people all smile at me."

Chinatowns around the country represent an increasingly rare phenomenon. They are communities in the deepest sense: places not only defined by geography but also by memory and relationships. It is why my son would rather buy his candy in Chinatown even though he could get it cheaper at Walmart. When he buys his candy in Chinatown, he knows the clerks, he feels happy to see them and they are happy to see him.

The responsibility that comes with relationships and knowing that there is something bigger than yourself is part of what makes a community live — it is part of what makes us fundamentally human. It isn’t just about a geographic area. It is about emotion, about connection to a place.

It is a deeply moving and personal piece, especially at a time when our struggles seem greatest. As she writes:

"True progress has to do with the human heart and the relationships we build and sustain over time. Our future as a city is not about me and mine, not about rugged individualism, but about collective
responsibility. It’s about what is ours — all of ours.

When you see us in the streets protesting, this is why we fight.

Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczy wrote a nice Friday column about this as well. Ronnie was kind enough to reprint Debbie's essay on her blog post. And of course, you can find it at Asian Americans United’s website as well.

November 1: Talking casinos between Obama and the Phillies

Tomorrow City Council is holding a public hearing at 10 a.m. at City Hall on whether to re-zone the Gallery to permit gambling in the heart of Philadelphia.

Here’s a PSA about what’s at stake.

What’s interesting about this re-zoning, is that the broader area being discussed in the bill is actually 6th to Broad and Chestnut to Arch. This is the area that is defined as amenable to taking a CED (Commercial Entertainment District), which is the zoning specifically designed to permit gambling.

Let's repeat that again: A 16-square block area covering 6th to Broad Streets, Chestnut to Arch Streets. Take a look at that area here.

What’s it mean? Who knows?

After all, it’s our Mayor himself who said:

"I don't have anything on the back of a napkin to show what this would look like."

At a Society Hill forum earlier this week, Planning Commissioner Andy Altman denied that there was any intent to put a gambling strip on Market East, saying that the zoning process would protect that from happening. But in the same breath, he disregarded that same zoning process and said it was essential to forfeit zoning privileges in order to "get a process started" for Foxwoods. As residents pointed out to him after the forum, how do you say zoning doesn’t matter in one case, but it’s an essential protection in another?

So tomorrow, we’ll be headed to City Council to say slow up this process. A rush job after all feels like a hack job. Everyone knows you plan first and zone later. Doing otherwise raises eyebrows.

And in between the Phillies celebration and before canvassing for the most important election of our time, I'm inviting you to join hundreds of citizens for an hour or two Saturday morning to march from Chinatown to City Hall. We’re marching for neighborhoods and a better vision for Philadelphia, and we’re marching to make Philadelphia’s political process as worthy as its World Series title and as the deliverer of the PA electoral vote.

Saturday, November 1st
9 a.m. gathering
Chinatown gate: 10th & Arch Sts.

I’ll leave the last words on the significance of this hearing for Chinatown’s Debbie Wei.

Lipstick on a pig: casino design and process

Last week, the Inky reported on a secretive meeting between the Governor, Mayor and Sugarhouse developer Neil Bluhm as Sugarhouse angled to gain the Mayor’s approval for its waterfront site. Bluhm offered to change the proposed big box design to curry the Mayor’s favor.

Nutter seemed non-committal, but two things stand out.

First, what’s up with all the secretive meetings? The decision to move Foxwoods to the Gallery and smack in the heart of Chinatown happened at a closed door August 21st meeting between the Governor, Mayor and Foxwoods. Now comes the news that the Governor, Mayor and Sugarhouse met in hotel corridors at the DNC in Denver to conduct side business.

In an interesting choice of words, the Governor’s spokesperson denied such a meeting as "nefarious." State Rep. Mike O’Brien had a different point of view:

O'Brien said the secretive nature of the meeting "doesn't build confidence" with the public and those who had complained about the process of selecting casino sites.

"The people were promised an open and transparent process," O'Brien said. "They deserve nothing less."

No Casino in Communities

The proposal to build the Foxwoods Casino at the Gallery is a clear indication of the lack of accountability on the part of our elected officials to the citizens of Philadelphia. In fact, the casino-siting process has been undeniably undemocratic from the beginning. From South Philly to Fishtown to Chinatown, backdoor deals have created these siting proposals with little to no input from neighborhood residents or community groups.

Simply put- Casinos do not belong in any city neighborhood. When casinos come into neighborhoods, crime rises and property values fall. They should not be in places where our residents live, work, learn and worship.

According to a 2007 poll, 79% of Philadelphia residents support the 1500 foot neighborhood buffer that is being proposed by community groups like Casino-Free Philadelphia and Asian Americans United.

Environmental racism, Chinatown and the Gallery casino

Gambling and gambling addiction in Asian communities is a well-known problem. Jennifer Lin’s Inquirer story today shows just how severe it is. Among the stunning statistics:

  • A survey of southeast Asian refugees in Connecticut (where statewide they only have two casinos), found that 59% were pathological gamblers.
  • In Atlantic City, an estimated 15-20% of revenues come from Asian gamblers.
  • A national study found that Asians had a prevalence of pathological gambling three times higher than whites.

Studies in general on Asian particularly Asian immigrant mental health problems are limited by the lack of bilingual and culturally responsive outreach. But for people on the ground level the concern about gambling addiction is overwhelming. The few doctors and family health counselors who work in Asian immigrant communities all point to gambling addiction as a major problem in Asian immigrant communities. But even more relevant is the lack of available help for immigrant gambling addicts.

Access to help already is a problem for Asians who don't speak English.

"Treatment of gambling addiction that is culturally competent is nonexistent in Philadelphia," said Philip Siu, founder of Chinatown Medical Services, the city's largest community health center for Asians.

Gamblers Anonymous, the best-known self-help group for compulsive gamblers, does not offer local meetings in Asian languages. The state-supported Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania hands out printed information on how to get help, but not in Asian languages.

Last week, I and one of the leaders of the Chinatown community went door to door to businesses to do a sample survey of their feelings about the casino. We found that more than 80% of businesses oppose the proposed casino or needed more information (this latter group was less than 10% of respondents). The number one concern cited, even by those who supported a casino, was the concern about gambling and gambling addiction. It wasn’t a generic fear of gambling. It was literally: I am afraid my husband, or my mother, or my children will be at the casino.

So what does that mean for the city? In our meeting with city officials, most professed that they had no knowledge that gambling was any greater a problem in Chinatown than in other communities. We’re willing to give them that. But now that concrete evidence indicates that not only could there be a serious problem, but that the city and state centers are poorly equipped to handle such a problem, what does it mean for the city to go ahead and continue to place the casino next to such a vulnerable community?

For many people in the community, this is what environmental racism looks like. It’s not only that a tiny residential community has endured 30 years of urban renewal projects that have taken away half the land and destroyed a third of the housing. It’s not just that there’s a lack of investment in the community – Chinatown despite being one of Philly’s oldest immigrant neighborhoods still lacks a public library, health clinic, rec center, or neighborhood public school.

Environmental racism also raises its head when there’s evidence of mental health problems and lack of infrastructure to address such problems, but all we get is a social worker or Foxwoods-sponsored counseling program or some translated brochures about gambling addiction. That just doesn’t cut it.

There are lots of things wrong with this site, but dismissing Chinatown’s anguish over the sufferings of its own people is not only cruel, it’s environmental racism at its clearest.

Foxwoods @ the Gallery: the process still stinks

This weekend marks one of Asia’s most significant holidays – the Harvest Moon – as well as Asian Americans United 13th Annual Mid-Autumn Festival, an event AAU founded to celebrate the cultural survival and community power of Philadelphia Chinatown, one of the city’s oldest immigrant neighborhoods.

Eight years ago, Mid-Autumn Festival was marked by the thousands of people who used this cherished gathering to declare their defiance of a new mayor’s proposal to establish a baseball stadium on Chinatown’s borders. At the time, it was considered a “done deal” and few expected resistance from a largely non-English speaking community with one of the poorest zip codes (at the time) in the city. No effort was made by the city to communicate with the residents of the neighborhood or to engage with the community’s plans for affordable housing, schools, parks, and gardens.

Chinatown had to fight tooth and nail to establish itself as a neighborhood with real needs and a vision for itself. Among the many arguments used against us was that Chinatown had no alternatives for the land north of Vine Street. But eight years is telling. Eight years later, Chinatown North (as it is dubbed) is a far different vision for a city’s development than the one nearly forced upon this community.

Cross Vine Street and walk the footprint of what would have been the stadium. You’ll find:

  • a new annex for Chinese Christian Church, to house their growing congregation;
  • the building headquarters of the Greater Philadelphia Fujianese Association, one of the fastest growing ethnicities in Philadelphia, whose business and community leadership has changed the face of the community;
  • Khmer Art Gallery, which celebrates the culture and arts of Cambodia, and Liao Collection, a gallery and store of Asian arts and antiques, whose owners relocated to this location after being active participants in the battle against the proposed baseball stadium; and
  • Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, an arts-based elementary charter school serving 400-some students founded by Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

Contrast this with a stadium that would have stayed empty two-thirds of the year, and offered this community little of the kind of “progress” it desired. Is it any wonder that this community fought a baseball stadium with every bit of its breath?

So why would city and state officials think that a casino would be any less repellant? The expected announcement today of the Foxwoods casino re-site to the Gallery is shocking on a number of levels.

First, since it’s apparently been forgotten: Chinatown is a NEIGHBORHOOD. Almost a quarter of its residents are children. We have homes, places of worship, cultural centers, and schools. A casino has no business in or around residential neighborhoods

Second, given the stadium history, it’s shocking that city and state officials would repeat past mistakes and make an announcement without any communication with neighborhood residents. The broader Chinatown community was neither consulted with or even informed of this announcement. We applaud the move to re-site the casinos – done largely in recognition of the flawed process and community activism that sunk the waterfront sites. But it is ironic/disrespectful/outrageous to ignore these past lessons and simply re-site to a different neighborhood with the same lack of process and communication.

Third, the Gallery location reportedly may come with perks for Foxwoods – including potential input on the development of the Market East corridor, a trouble-free approval process, tax breaks or compensation to abandon the waterfront sites, and legal immunity. None of these are priorities or an appropriate use of public process or dollars in difficult economic times.

And finally, we deserve a city that sets its development priorities based on a public planning process guided by unifying principles for what a city and its people need. It doesn’t need politically-connected operators to dictate how and when a city develops and uses its precious resources and money.

Obviously we need a lot more information to know where this is going. But right now, unless we hear differently, we’re ready for a fight.

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