In Philadelphia, a 3-year-old anti-casino movement has been growing and seems to be gaining some staying power

Community activist Jethro Heiko was led away in handcuffs from a September demonstration at the construction site of the SugarHouse casino on the Philadelphia waterfront. - “We anticipate doing this again and again,” he says.


Known as a “city of neighborhoods” with individual pride of place and rivalries, Philadelphia can be as NIMBY as the next town. However, dozens of groups - started by a handful of people initially opposed to specific casino locations - have now banded together, forming the “No Casino in the Heart of the City Coalition”. They’ve even rented out a storefront on Market Street, a block from Independence Hall.

On September 29, 14 members of one of the first groups, Casino Free Philadelphia, staged its first serious act of nonviolent civil disobedience, camping arm-in-arm on the sidewalk at the front entrance to the SugarHouse Casino, which after years of delay was undergoing the first stages of construction on the Delaware River waterfront just north of downtown.

The group was arrested without incident.

“We anticipate doing this again and again, whenever we feel that it makes sense, including their official groundbreaking,” says Jethro Heiko, 36, a “social entrepreneur” and activist, a transplant from Newton, Mass., who helped lead an effort in Boston to save Fenway Park from the wrecking ball. He lives only a few hundred feet from the SugarHouse site.

At full build-out, which could be years away, SugarHouse will feature 3,000 slot machines, indoor parking, a hotel, retail shopping and other attractions.

Officials at SugarHouse, owned by a group led by Chicago developer Neil Bluhm, and a second planned casino, Foxwoods Philadelphia, also privately owned (the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Tribe, which owns the giant Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, has a minority stake in the enterprise), are by all appearances unfazed by the increasingly loud protesters.

“I don’t necessarily know that I want to talk about them at all,” says Leigh Whitaker, spokeswoman for SugarHouse. “We’re moving forward. We’ve broken ground. We’re building a casino on our site and we’ll be open this time next year.”

Management at Foxwoods Philadelphia declined to comment.

Industry proponents say the social dangers their opponents associate with casinos are overblown.

“I have rafts of quotes from people from Pennsylvania ... and folks say that their fears of an increase in crime did not materialize,” says Holly Thomsen, communications director for the American Gaming Association, referring to the nine other slots houses that have opened across the Keystone State since gambling was approved in 2004.

The AGA, a casino industry trade group based in Washington, D.C., says that independent research has it that 15 to 18 percent of U.S. adults think gambling is morally wrong for themselves and others. That’s a figure that hasn’t changed in more than a decade, Thomsen says, and likely won’t change.

“Addiction and bankruptcy and crime and all these negatives that people try to tie to casinos, there’s just not a substantial increase in these things when casinos do come,” she adds. “The folks in Philly are certainly organized in their efforts to get these messages out, but they’re the same messages we’ve been hearing over and over again for years.”

Both casinos are slated for locations on the Delaware River, long a source of frustration for residents of the “river wards” who have seen much industrial decay along the river’s banks over the past few decades. When Mayor Michael Nutter embraced the idea of riverfront redevelopment he made it clear that he was against the casinos’ locations - particularly Foxwoods, which is more centrally located on Columbus Boulevard. Among other things, such as its original boxy design, objections were raised about possible traffic and parking nightmares on a street that has had its share of both.

Bowing to pressure from city officials, management agreed to relocate from the river to The Gallery, a 1970s-era shopping mall in the heart of downtown that is in terrible need of a modern makeover. Presumably, Foxwoods would have been a win-win in that regard. It helped that the mall is owned in part and managed by Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), which is run by developer Ron Rubin, whose family’s charitable trusts have significant ownership interests in Foxwoods.

But next door, at 8th and Market streets, is the nearly vacant home of the old Strawbridge & Clothier department store, a beloved local landmark and also under the PREIT umbrella. Relocating the casino there would make it easier to open in less time, or so it was believed. There would be no new building, and because the site is on top of a major transportation hub, traffic concerns could largely be mitigated.

Both sites, though, are on the border of Philadelphia’s Chinatown. And with the involvement of a group known as Asian Americans United, the anti-casino atmosphere was ratcheted up several notches in a hurry.

“We see that people have developed addiction problems just going to Atlantic City [on day trips],” says Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United. “Some community members with older parents who participate in such trips said they shudder to think of the convenience of a slots parlor within walking distance. There was an immediate reaction that this would be perilous for our community, something that we really had to resist because of the nature of the industry.”

To which Thomsen replies, “The arguments that are being made by these groups, that gaming causes crime, addiction, cannibalization of other businesses, those are the same arguments that have been disproven in the jurisdictions that have casinos.”

Somekawa says her group had been concerned at the licensing stage, but immediately started mobilizing once the move to Market Street was announced. They then started to learn more about the gaming issue from Casino Free Philadelphia and promptly joined forces.

“What became clear for us was that this was not about traffic, it wasn’t about drunks on the sidewalk,” she says. “It really went to the heart of the issue of gambling addiction, and people worrying about the presence of that kind of business right on our borders.”

Chinatown resident Lai Har Cheung has been a particularly vocal and emotional attendee at public meetings about the casino. “In the Chinese community, on one level or another, there’s a certain acceptance of [gambling],” he says. “This has been in my family for a long time. The abuse of this particular entertainment - for me I think of it as crack cocaine - it should be an illegal drug. Most other addictions, you can’t lose your house based on one night of binge drinking.”

The AGA maintains that only 1 percent of Americans who visit casinos develop into problem gamblers. (Others put it at anywhere up to 5 percent.) Thomsen cites a study that said that of that 1 percent, “The survey attributed less than 4 percent of gross daily casino revenue to pathological gamblers.”

She acknowledges, however, that much more research needs to be done. Gambling addiction studies are “about 20 years behind the field of studying alcohol,” she says.

On Oct. 9, 2008, hundreds of impassioned residents turned out for a meeting with city officials, demanding answers about Foxwoods’ downtown location, and it would be less than a year later that the often-maligned Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board ordered the project back to its original waterfront location, expressing impatience with the company’s lack of communication and stalled development.

“Did the collapse of the credit market help? Yes,” Somekawa says. “Did the tanking of the gaming industry help? Yes. But our thinking from the beginning was, we’ve got to delay this thing. The more we can delay, protract, prolong, the more these other internal contradictions of sustainability - can they open all these things? - come more into play.”

The industry takes a different view.

“Part of the organizational, if you want to call it ‘success,’ that they’ve had is because they are being led by people being paid to do so and are long-time activists,” says Thomsen. “I’m not saying they make a lot of money. But what’s happening there is nothing new. Asian American United, for example, they’re against any kind of development. Their previous fight was against a baseball park [for the Philadelphia Phillies]. It doesn’t seem like it has just to do with casinos.”

“I’m proud of it. We’re very good at what we do,” Heiko says. “How much does she get paid?” he says, referring to Thomsen. “The AGA, they don’t want to have a public debate. It just demonstrates that they’d rather dig for dirt on individuals rather than address the issues.”

He says it’s true that he’s a professional organizer but says he has made less than $20,000 for his efforts over three years. Another leader of Casino Free Philadelphia, Lily Cavanaugh, is paid $2,000 a month as a full-timer. The group’s Webmaster is paid too (about $750 a month, Heiko says). Fund-raising has come from online appeals ($2,500 was raised in the wake of the September arrests), and non-profit groups have made donations of $5,000 and $2,000 in the past year.

“It’s a shoestring budget and we’re woefully underfunded,” says Paul Boni, a Philadelphia attorney who does pro bono work for the coalition. “But it doesn’t take as much money to disseminate a truth as it does to spin something through a big public relations machine. You need a lot of money for that.”

‘MAKE THEM PAY'

For Natalia Olson, an urban planner and a member of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission who has lived all over the world, the issue is not so much about social impacts as it is about creating a proper setting for the casinos.

“I really wanted less of a big box and more of a structure that allows for real access to the water and provides more amenities than just gambling,” she says.

She’s disappointed that her fellow commissioners approved what is being called an “interim” phase casino for SugarHouse - essentially a placeholder for grander visions. In the case of SugarHouse that means three phases that will eventually see the building of a parking garage, a greatly expanded casino floor, entertainment and dining and, if things progress that far, a hotel.

For now, the interim casino (a groundbreaking ceremony was held last month) will have just 1,700 slot machines. Both SugarHouse and Foxwoods are allotted 5,000 machines each. (For Heiko that fact alone is a cause for celebration. “To us that’s an 8,300 machine victory. I think Foxwoods is going to have an even tougher time.”) As of October 2, Foxwoods officials had yet to submit new plans for an “interim” casino. They are under strict deadlines from the state Gaming Control Board.

Before being appointed to the Planning Commission by the mayor, Olson sat in on some of the pitches from the developers vying for the city’s two casino licenses. One of them mentioned building a “neighborhood casino,” she recalls. Right away, the language of the gaming industry was a problem. Outside of Nevada most people are not familiar with the concept of a “neighborhood casino,” compared to, say, a resort casino or a casino that sits amid a cluster of gaming establishments.

Olson, who had seen the successful development of casinos in Europe when she worked for the U.S. State Department, says she did not foresee the public outcry that would come in Philadelphia.

“Honestly, I didn’t, because I thought, ‘This waterfront has been underdeveloped; nothing has been happening for a long time. It seems to me to be a good prospect. Maybe this can help bring activity to the waterfront.’ They were thinking ‘third phases’ already - hotels, restaurants, open areas to walk, and almost a little Main Street. ... I thought that’s where they were going.”

She admits, too, that there have been a lot of mixed messages from city government. “In the larger context, because of a lack of a comprehensive plan, we didn’t have a citywide strategy of development in place.”

That has improved over the past year, with a new “overlay district” created for the Central Delaware River waterfront (including the sites for both casinos) and signed into law in the spring.

“But,” Olson says, “nobody has decided, ‘OK, this is the type of development we should be going after,’ or ‘This is the kind of thing we want in this particular area; this is how it’s going to affect this area and this is how the city will manage this impact.’ I think there’s a lack of that kind of strategy - still.”

From a social services standpoint, Philly politicians have found themselves at the will and mercy of state officials in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital, where the big city is often viewed with suspicion, if not contempt. It’s a familiar feeling for mayors and City Council members when playing with more traditional political footballs, but with gaming all of the power and decisions - location and number of casinos, number of slots, the license awards themselves, and more - come from the state, with precious little recourse for appeal. So when city officials do take a stand it means even more confusion for residents and activists.

“We’re being told by elected officials not to participate in government and decisions that are affecting us,” Heiko says. “It’s reprehensible.”

Olson explains. “The mayor was saying he doesn’t want casinos, but then realizes that there is an economic opportunity there. We’re in a budget crisis where casinos will somehow bring revenue to the city. The anti-casino folks say that revenue will be used for the social problems they will bring.”

There’s frustration among gambling agnostics, too, over how much negative impact the casinos will bring since statistical probabilities and studies on urban gambling are so scarce. That dearth of information has put a lot of officials and decision-makers at a loss.

Olson says she and her fellow planning commissioners are mostly neutral to gaming development and are committed to achieving the best-case scenario. “We can give our opinion [on gaming], yes, but everything has already been decided at the state level. We would just elongate the process of development. It’s going to happen, so let’s just make it as best as possible.”

As for the protests, arrests and picketing, they may peter out over time, but for now the anti-casino coalition in Philadelphia appears to be strengthening, which could affect decisions being made in other urban settings in other states that are considering the legalization of gambling in one form or another.

Meanwhile, reports surfaced recently that an amendment was in the works in the state Legislature that could possibly allow Foxwoods to yet again move their location -- back to Market Street.

There’s more to cloud the picture. Pennsylvania’s budget woes have resulted in a push to allow table games in the state’s existing casinos. And there are racinos to the immediate north of Philadelphia and to its immediate south. To the east, Atlantic City is 90 minutes away. In the city itself, five years after legalization and more than three years after the awarding of two licenses for a total of 10,000 slot machines, there is only fencing at one site and a few pilings being driven at the other.

“People are never going to stop,” says Somekawa. “Even if the casinos somehow manage to get open, people are really gonna try to make it miserable for them. Our mission really is, that if they shove this onto Philly, to make them pay.”