Gambling's real winners and losers

On Sunday, Monica Yant Kinney wrote a shocking story about the locals who make Bucks County's Parx Casino so "profitable." According to Parx, most of their clients live within a 20 mile radius of Street Road and come 3-4 times a week, losing $25-$30 a trip.

Today we get to meet one of Parx's regulars: a former construction worker who was sidelined due to injury but now has found his new profession as a casino player.

Anderson lives five minutes from the Bensalem slots box, which raked in $400 million in profit last year in a recession. Proximity, plus free valet parking, has turned the unemployed cement mason into a casino operator's dream.

Anderson, 31, pops in for 90 minutes here, three hours there. He plays to relax and to kill time when his kids are in school. He plays late at night when he can't sleep or at dawn while his wife dozes.

Anderson views playing the slots as a profession, a flextime job he can do in sweats while smoking.

"I treat it like a business," he tells me after we meet at the casino. "If this is what I have to do to make money, this is what I have to do."

Problem is that Anderson doesn't realize Steve Wynn's favorite quote: The only way to beat the house is to be the house.

Steve Wynn tries to bully Inquirer reporter(VIDEO)

Right after his appearance at the Gaming Control Board in Harrisburg last week (March 3), Steve Wynn found himself in the position of having to answer some really basic questions from reporter Jennifer Lin about the venue where he wants to build his casino. His ignorance of the issues is stunning. Some powerful people apparently felt that this sleaze is the right person to revive Foxwoods.
Video by Roxbury News.

Revoke the Foxwoods license

After the City and Penn Praxis invested so much time, effort, and resources into putting together a publicly-supported plan for the Central Delaware waterfront, prospective waterfront tenant Steve Wynn, who wants to buy the Foxwoods project and its much criticized South Philly site, sent the wrong message yesterday in Harrisburg:

"The waterfront is horribly ugly in that place," said Wynn, who walked the casino lot on Tuesday night. "You couldn't do any more damage to it if you set it on fire."

Mr. Environmental Sensitivity also said the only way he'd agree to build the hotel that was part of the approved Foxwoods deal was if he got access to even more waterfront property, suburban sprawl-style. Seems like he doesn't believe that urban architecture should build up instead of out.

The funny thing is this makes it easier for the Gaming Control Board to do the right thing.

An Open Letter to Philadelphia Politicians

Dear Philadelphia Politicians,

We cordially invite you to attend the criminal trial of Philadelphia’s premier civic leaders.

We are thirteen of Philadelphia’s most honorable citizens – including two ministers, five teachers and professors, several grandparents and one great grandparent, a union organizer, and several entrepreneurs – who stood up to protect our community from the pernicious affects of the slots parlors that you are foisting on our great city.

• Without public input or regard, you legalized gambling in Pennsylvania in a hurried late-night legislative session.

• Instead of allowing Philadelphians to develop a riverfront that is family-friendly and pays homage to the historic character of our city, you are creating a blight on the banks of the Delaware with acres of surface parking above a four hundred year old Native American settlement.

Really Mr. Governor?

Why grow a conscience now?

"I signed this [table games] bill despite the misgivings I have about it," Rendell said soon afterward at a news conference in his Capitol office. "I have serious misgivings about 'sin' taxes as a way to go. There is no sense of celebration."

Among other thing, it should be noted that the Governor was willing to:

  • Hold up the state budget for more than 100 days to resolve gambling revenue;
  • Hold hostage state universities for months longer, tying their state money to passage of table games;
  • Forego a tax on the billion dollar natural gas industry even though it could bring in the same amount of revenue as table games; and
  • Threatened to lay-off 1,000 state employees in the days leading up to the bill's passage.

Doesn't exactly sound like a man wracked by guilt does it?

Don't be sorry, Mr. Governor. It's not like you were alone in the effort. It took a Supreme Court decision last spring to overturn political gambling contributions. It took the sneaky and possibly illicit lobbying activities of the Pennsylvania Casino Association (headed by the father-daughter team of a former Supreme Court Justice) to ply the legislature. It took millions of dollars in campaign contributions from personal friends and donors.

And look what that bought. As Paul Boni noted in his excellent op-ed last week, the new table games legislation now allows:

  • Slots on credit, because no one should stop gambling just because they ran out of money!
  • Classifies casino employees as “essential workers.” Because no one should value a casino less just because daycares, libraries, parks and rec centers close!
  • Virtually free table games licenses and taxes them at a rate lower than the working poor (16% the first year, 14% from year 2 on out)!
  • Permits members of the Gaming Control Board to be casino employees because who better can regulate the very industry that pays them!

After all, Mr. Governor, think about how much you pinned the state budget on gambling – it’s the second highest revenue generator. Second only to education funding, gambling in PA is your legacy and, if certain lawmakers continue to attack the education formula, it could be your lasting legacy.

Don't back down now. Embrace the PA you created.

The Casino Fight Goes On

It has been a busy week, but, I wanted to use my miniature bully pulpit to talk for a second about Foxwood’s huge defeat at the hands of Chinatown and their merry band of activists.

Here is my basic take on all of this:

1) The defeat of Foxwoods lurch into Center City was an incredible victory for the people of the No Casino in the Heart of Our City coalition. Think about what Chinatown and friends were up against: The Governor, the Mayor, Councilman DiCicco and assortment of state politicians. This looked like tilting at windmills when it began. Instead, it is a huge, incredible win for a community that was basically on an island. It really is incredible. First the stadium, now Foxwoods. I guess it is time to stop trying to bulldoze your way into Chinatown?

2) It is OK to note that this is also a sad turn for South Philly. I agree with Helen that the more Foxwoods ping pongs around like a punch drunk boxer, the more weakened it is, and the less likely it is to build. But, there is no denying that neighborhoods surrounding Pennsport are understandably freaked out and saddened by this news. It is a simple reality that when a casino is in your backyard, you care about it more. (I know Trump trying to open a slots barn a quarter of a mile from my childhood home-and my parents’ current home- made the casino fight very real.) One of the worst parts of the casino process was basically forcing 5 (and then 6) neighborhoods to square off against each other when trying to keep casinos away from their homes.

3) Connected to that, the behavior of politicians in response to this all has so far been really disappointing. The general response of people such as Frank DiCicco has been to slam the decision in a way that is pretty divisive. Here is the thing- it is OK if someone thinks the waterfront is a worse place for a casino than Center City. But, the other reality is that a lot of these politicians are supposed to represent BOTH of these communities. And yet, the rhetoric in the last 6 months or so was them telling their constituents in Chinatown to shut up and accept a casino for the good of the city, and their constituents on the river.

Chinatown didn’t listen, and did what communities should do: they fought like hell for the fabric of their neighborhoods, and won. Yet, when they won, they were greeted with more derision from their own representatives. From an outsider’s perspective, that just doesn’t feel right. Yes, yes, I get that they think this is a bad decision. But, your own constituents just fought a huge emotional battle, with none of your help, and they won. There should be at least a measure of grace in those responses acknowledging what they did, not statements that make it seem as if people on the river’s concerns about their homes trump their neighbor's five miles away.

5) So where does this leave us? Maybe this isn’t even a possibility, but, is it time for a grand bargain? I don’t know if it is remotely feasible legislatively for the casino to be shoved down to the airport. But, at a time when Foxwoods will likely never be weaker, is it time to find out?

I hate casinos. They are a regressive tax, and they increase addiction in their neighbors. But, I also believe that at some point, a casino will be built. Is it demonstrably worse for Philadelphians if there is a casino at the airport and in Chester, versus just Chester?

Report from Harrisburg: Foxwoods to South Philly (In A Tent?)

Update -- 1:39 pm -- The Gaming Board rules that Foxwoods gets extension but reiterates for it not to "waste it's time" on any other site but the waterfront at the level promised. Unanimous.

Helen Gym is in Harrisburg, and reports that Foxwoods says it will be operation in South Philly in May 2011, but wants a "temporary facility." (I am sure that will be beautiful.) And, it might ask for a relocation later. The Gaming Board would have to consent to either of these. More quickly jotted notes:

On conditions for the extension:

    • PCGB lawyers recommend conditions as follows: within 30 days of board extension provide plan for 1500 slots at it's approved location; provide written monthly updates on financing on approved location; within six months provide a financing plan; within 3 months of all architectural renderings, all documents related to construction of facility, including timeline, etc. In total 10 recommendations all of which state at "it's approved location." Last recommendation is negotiating with community groups.
  • On timing:

    • Foxwoods responding that they're worried about the timeline that they "might be in default of." They don't like the first month plan or the drawings for the facility; Dopn't like timeline for permits and licenses- "we can't control what the govt does." These things include mandated community negotiations, which "puts an axe over our head"
    • Gaming Board member says he'll revoke the license if they try to move; another said that they don't want to hear about phases and "want some sort of assurance that they'll have a facility".
    • Commissioner asks: you have six months, "are you going to do anything?"

    On the nature of the facility:

    • Foxwoods says that it needs time to assess the situation to make a "quality competitive facility"
    • Commissioner reiterates says that we voted for what you proposed in 2006. You made a commitment to this board and to this Commonwealth and we're going to hold your feet to the fire.

    On the location:

    • Office of Enforcement notes that Foxwoods lacks most basic permit at Columbus Blvd., which is the zoning and use permit.
    • Commissioner asks if, based on the original proposal, they would be prohibited from getting permits.
    • Chair: "Can't reiterate enough the concern of the board any discussion of relocating. I cannot say it emphatically enough that if this petition is granted we expect that facility to be on Columbus Blvd and in the way it was presented."
    • Any discussion of relocating "is a fool's errand."

    Join O'Brien and Thomas in opposing major expansion of predatory gambling

    Today, two Philly Democrats, joined the opposition to video poker in the Gaming Oversight Committee.

    Watch this video to learn more and please join these two Philly elected officials, Michael O'Brien and Curtis Thomas, in their opposition to video poker. Encourage them to keep voting "no" and help turn other Democrats into no votes. Supporting casinos and the expansion of predatory gambling is not progressive, Democatic, or democratic. Check out the video and take action to stop casinos and the expansion of gambling and corruption in our state.

    Jethro Heiko responds to Councilman DiCicco

    Below is my response to the following letter from Councilman DiCicco's attorney.

    DiCicco Threat Letter

    Yesterday, through his attorney, Councilman DiCicco sent me a letter claiming that I defamed him by posting on YPP that the Councilman has engaged in “corruption” to the detriment of our waterfront and city planning. The letter demands an immediate retraction and apology. Rather than respond to his attorney I will post my response here. I will not retract my post nor will I apologize.

    I am, however, happy to explain in greater detail what I meant when I referred (and will continue to refer) to the Councilman as a politician who engages in corruption. But let’s get real about the term – it means lacking in integrity, virtue and moral principle; it means a deviation from what is right; it means failing to represent the public interest. It does not mean that the official took a bribe and I have never used it that way. I should be able to use the term when I think the shoe fits. Whether you agree with me or not, I hope you support my right to voice my opinion.

    In my post, I said that our Delaware waterfront is in a sorry state due to “his and his mentor’s corruption.” I think this is a obvious and unremarkable assertion. Our waterfront is an embarrassing joke. The control over its development is largely a function of local zoning and land use laws; and the Councilman has been in charge of zoning in the First District for some time now. The gated towers of Waterfront Square, the wholly inappropriate solid walls of the garage at the Hyatt Hotel, the overloading of the southern end and the resulting traffic, I could go on and on and on. We all could.

    Our Delaware River Waterfront is one of the City’s greatest assets and its development history and current status is horrendous. Some would even say, rhetorically, that it’s a sin and a crime. Why hasn’t the Councilman changed the zoning on the waterfront in the many years that he has been the district councilperson? Why? And, finally, when we have a fantastic planning effort led by thousands of citizens, guided by Penn Praxis in an open and transparent manner – that gave us the Civic Vision – the Councilman drafts, sponsors and passes a new Zoning Overlay that fails to adopt all the recommendations of the Civic Vision and worse yet, drafts zoning for casinos that exempts them and their satellite parking from that zoning overlay. Sure, he passed some of the recommendations but not the key one about the width of the waterfront setback. Why can’t the Councilman just do what the people want? Why is it so hard? All of that is evidence (on top of what we can see – or not see – when we walk on Delaware Avenue) that his conduct was and is lacking in integrity, virtue and moral principle, that it deviated from what is right and that it is not in the public interest. It gets worse when he claims that he will protect one constituency and neighborhood at the expense of others and attempts, with some success, to divide and conquer. In my view, that is corruption.

    And when crafting the zoning legislation which allows Sugarhouse satellite parking, exempting surface parking lots from the new zoning overlay for the Waterfront he opens the door for more corruption at the newly named Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, formerly the Penn’s Landing Corporation. Rather than advancing the civic vision in a transparent way we have an agency, City Council, and Mayor whose vision for the riverfront mirrors that of Neil Bluhm, developer of the proposed Sugarhouse casino, rather than that of the thousands of citizens who spent tens of thousands of hours developing the civic vision.

    I think it was wrong for the Councilman to accuse me of defamation. YPP is a place for people to have discussion and debate in a public forum. Yes, when I wrote my post I was mad (and I still am). If the Councilman wants to rebut my statements, if he wants to claim that his stewardship over the development of the waterfront was based on integrity, virtue and moral principle, then he should post a response online. He is a public person and he stands up and takes praise wherever he can get it. But Councilmanic prerogative has to work both ways – it means that the Councilmember is responsible and should be held accountable for the zoning laws in his or her district, especially when there has been as much tinkering in the First District; and especially when he has presided over so many failures and lost opportunities at our waterfront.

    Foxwoods Casino Countdown: 3 . . .2 . . . 1

    It’s hard to believe that today marks nine months to the day since a line-up of politicos from the Governor on down stood end to end in City Hall and declared the heart of Philadelphia as their target for the flailing casino industry. Employing every tactic in the book (including political threats and gaming board maneuvers), with a hearty dose of environmental racism toward Chinatown, Rendell and city leaders made it seem like there was no done deal like this done deal.

    But after nine months, where have things gone?

    The casino, in Dan’s colorful imagery, has now lurched to Strawbridge’s, its third attempted site, where it sits fallow today. No plans. No drawings. Nothing "on the back of a napkin" as Mayor Nutter said last fall, to show what this thing will look like, what it will offer Philadelphians, and how it will contribute to a desperate economy.

    Is it telling that despite seeking PR for its support of last weekend’s International Championship bike race, Foxwoods gave up its promotional table to Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center – perhaps because there’s nothing to promote?

    Is it telling that last week’s City Council session came and went with barely a mention of Foxwoods’ zoning permit for Strawbridge’s that has sat for over a month, while owners squabble?

    And is it telling that with only two more Council sessions to go, neither Foxwoods nor the City has anything to show for all their boasting and posturing of a December 2009 opening.

    At the same time, a number of things have happened that bodes poorly for Foxwoods:

    What's goin' on: Casinos, school violence and an update on the Luis Ramirez murder

    A round-up of things in my neck o’ the woods:

    1. Foxwoods fiasco remains stalled: The bizarre Foxwoods fiasco remains stalled out, but that didn’t stop the casino from filing for a license extension last week. The petition reads like one long plaintive whine on why their gamble on a downtown casino hasn’t hit the jackpot yet. It also demonstrates how effective Councilman Frank "My Fighting Days are Over" DiCicco and Mayor "No Barriers to Casinos" Nutter were in stalling the project and potentially getting concessions from the casinos – something both have refused to do now that the project is off the waterfront.
    2. Petition to stop predatory gambling practices: Meanwhile, the No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition is pushing a petition for City Council which targets predatory gambling practices (sign here). The "No Blank Check For Casinos" Campaign argues that Council has a moral and civic duty to enact basic protections when a slots house is placed next to neighborhoods and homes – things like: making sure casinos close between 2-8 a.m.; prohibiting free unlimited alcohold service, and prohibiting ATM machines and lending on the casino floors. So far DiCicco has argued that such protections are outside his control.

      Ironically, in 2007, DiCicco made sure the City amended its otherwise strict limitations on payday lending to exempt casinos. Seems like it’s not impossible after all for Council to consider citizens’ needs as well as casino needs.

    3. Another out of touch Inky editorial: Over the weekend, the Inquirer published yet another awful editorial on the Philadelphia public schools. It was based on the annual report written by the District’s one-note Safe Schools Advocate, whose apparent sole contribution is an annual doomsday report on school violence. In its editorial "Rotten Apples," the Inquirer stated it’s time to "get rid of persistent troublemakers." Unfortunately, its tough on kids approach offered few options, and the Safe Schools Advocate, as expected, simply pounded on his one issue – noting the fact that schools don’t expel enough kids. That got me thinking about a recent Baltimore Sun story about Baltimore’s "go nuclear" approach: permanent expulsions under zero tolerance. With zero tolerance, there’s hardly any need for due process (parents have 10 days to appeal in writing) and the rotten apples are prohibited from attending any public, charter or disciplinary school, thereby placing the entire burden on the parents to either home-school or pay for private school.

    Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds a gambling free for all

    Breaking news from the AP wire:

    Pennsylvania's highest court says a ban on political campaign contributions by casino owners and executives is unconstitutional. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the ban violates the state constitution's guarantee of free speech. . . . The ban was touted as a major bulwark against the political influence that the lucrative gambling industry can exert over policymakers.

    The Supreme Court noted in its opinion that the ban on political contributions was overly broad. In writing for the majority, Chief Justice Ron Castille suggested other alternatives:

    "While the ban on political contributions does further the compelling state interest in avoiding the appearance of corruption in the oversight of the gaming industry, Section 1513 is not narrowly tailored," Castille wrote. "A statute that limited the size of contributions, rather than absolutely prohibiting any contributions, would be more narrowly drawn to accomplish the stated goal."

    That’s what they did in Maryland, so how’d that turn out?

    Democratic Matters: From Fishtown to the World

    I work on a lot of things now, and they are all interconnected in many ways, although it’s not always obvious. What holds all of the things I work on together is the principle that the public should have the power to make decisions for itself, without intermediary, and that structures and places that allow and facilitate the necessary discussion and decisionmaking should be free, and protected by law.

    I want to write about the casino fight because, as with so many things, the public conversation has become a little amnesiac about what has really happened here.

    “And now for our next trick”: City leaders on using casinos to make government irrelevant

    After all, last fall’s show about making the Gallery the sworn choice for a Center City slots joint was a tough act to follow. No plan, no design, no studies, no financing, but Council was able to ram through rezoning a 16-square block area before they could blink.

    A city planning commission vote was such a rubber stamp at least two Planning Commission members voted not to oppose the project by shrugging their shoulders. After 1,000 people marched in the streets and 60 citizens gave five hours worth of testimony at a packed Saturday Council hearing, Council committee members unanimously voted to move a motion forward and left the room before we had picked up all the signs and banners from the seats. Council acted similarly in waiving requirements to speed up the final casino zoning vote. Except for a brief comment by Councilman Curt Jones Jr. and a classic reprimand by Council President Verna – “nothing you say can change this vote” – nothing referenced the concerns that a distraught community had raised for weeks. The same held true for the Mayor when he came in on a Sunday morning to sign the legislation for the Gallery zoning into law, less than 24 hours after meeting with community members.

    So how can City leaders possibly top that?

    Let’s review the huddle conversation.

    An ambush at the Gaming hearings

    Yesterday more than 70 Philadelphians headed to Harrisburg to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board Hearing for what was supposed to be a "status update" on the Philadelphia casinos.

    Instead, what many of us were greeted with was essentially an ambush - the announcement that Foxwoods used the status hearing to announce that they planned to move within a matter of months into the Strawbridge's building.

    Residents and neighboring businesses have raised concerns over the scaffolding around the historic 8th & Market landmark which has been in place for weeks. After all, it would be highly inappropriate for a gambling establishment to start building out for a casino without first applying to the PGCB (the application process triggers a number of studies as well as some process).

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