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Philadelphia Casino's Triumph Should Have Belonged To Foxwoods

Dan Haar

October 01, 2010

It was a beautiful day in Philadelphia Sunday as Marilyn Griffith and Gigi Griffith, close friends but unrelated, relaxed on the deck of the brand-new SugarHouse Casino on the banks of the Delaware River. Not sunny beautiful, but at the outdoor café under a gunmetal sky, and inside this vast, gleaming structure, the scene actually approached the perfection of the dreams that combined to make it happen.

There was the city skyline, a mile or so away. Two sailboats on the river, Beatles songs piped into the bus shelter. Even on a football Sunday in Eagles-crazed Philadelphia, a steady crowd streamed in.

"We're not gamblers," said Marilyn Griffith, of Passaic, N.J. "We're just visiting." Their husbands were conducting business just as SugarHouse and the commonwealth's gaming board would hope — probably, the women said, at the blackjack tables.

It was the fourth day of business for SugarHouse, the first casino to open inside the city limits, with its 1,600 slot machines, many with tiny TV's showing the ballgames, and 40 gaming tables. For Pennsylvania, it's the 10th gambling palace, less than four years after Mohegan Sun opened the first at Pocono Downs a couple of hours north.

SugarHouse is, at least for now, an economic and urban planning triumph.

And the shame of it all, from Connecticut's viewpoint is that the triumph coulda, woulda, shoulda belonged to Foxwoods — but for lousy decisions and worse timing.

Back in December of 2006, the gaming board picked two groups to open the first casinos in the city where America's independence was born. SugarHouse was one, with its plan just north of the center city. Foxwoods-led Philadelphia Entertainment and Development Partners was the other, with a glitzier, more ambitious plan on the same riverbank just south of the center city.

By 2008, both camps paid their $50 million antes and received their coveted licenses.

Today, the Foxwoods plan — a $670 million first phase featuring 3,000 slots, an outdoor pavilion, a food court and an 1,800-seat showroom — is in a shambles. The group is begging for more time from a fed-up gaming board that wants to pull its license. Casino developer Steve Wynn came in as a potential savior, and left. Now, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, the group is close to a deal with Harrah's to step into the lead role.

Foxwoods, meanwhile, is nursing its wounds under a debt of $2 billion that it can't fully cover in Connecticut, after a massive MGM Grand expansion in 2007, at the start of a recession that hit casino gambling harder than the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe bet it would.

No one is saying directly that Foxwoods Philly would be a reality today if the tribe had held its cards on the MGM colossus — which, as an aside, is awfully nice. But a lack of money appears to be as much to blame for the delays as the many clashes that have plagued the plan.

After the Foxwoods riverfront plan stalled, in part due to traffic concerns, there was a lot of talk about opening in the middle of downtown instead. One target was a three-square-block concrete monstrosity called Gallery at Market East, home to an Old Navy. This is the sort of building that gives cities a bad name, a mixed-use redevelopment as pedestrian unfriendly as anything the '70s ever dished up. It makes the old Hartford Civic Center Mall look like the Welcome Wagon.

Many city officials liked that plan, and gambling patrons I spoke with Sunday said they'd certainly visit the place if it ever opened there.

But neighbors were strongly opposed. The gaming board basically told the group to build where said they'd build, said Bill McGarvey, a spokesman for the board.

It remains unclear whether Foxwoods will even have a role in the "Great Pennsylvania Chip Grab." And it's too bad, if it ends up on the outs. The recession, and the specter of competition all around the region, have taught us that strategically sized and located casinos are key to long-term survival.

The two Griffith couples, originally from Barbados, are a perfect illustration. They live in the New York area, have visited Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun to see the grandest betting floors in the land, and will travel a day's drive in any direction in search of entertainment, and a better payoff. Foxwoods needs them, and missed them Sunday afternoon — badly.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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