When Bad Ideas Fly—II
The 139-word Bloomberg News release—that Pinnacle Entertainment is selling shares for casino funding—ends on a sour note. Pinnacle lost out in its bid for a slot machine parlor in Philadelphia to the proprietors of the largest casino complex in the world, Foxwoods, which is owned and operated by Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot tribe.
The new Foxwoods Casino—slot machines only—that won the license, will be sited on the west bank of the Delaware River, roughly 1-1/2 miles from our 1817 row house in South Philadelphia.
My neighbor, novelist-actor Steve Zettler, wrote a letter to The Philadelphia Inquirer that oozed sanctimony. “It goes beyond the obvious detriments of traffic, crime, prostitution and all-night annoyances,” Zettler wrote. “Gambling is a vice, and slot machines suck money from those who can least afford to lose it. I, for one, would rather pay more taxes than see our city and state stoop this low.”
C’mon, Steve, playing the slots is a lifestyle choice, just as is shelling out hundreds of dollars a month for usurious credit card interest payments.
This is a case of “Not-in-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY),” not an argument for social change.
It’s also the stupidest business decision made by Native Americans since the Lenapes sold Manhattan Island to Peter Minuet for $24 worth of cloth and buttons on May 24, 1626.
The only people dumber than the Mashantucket Pequots are the Philadelphia investors and politicians that allowed it to happen.
So what else is new?
Gamblers want action—and lots of it. With the advent of casino gambling around the country—in Atlantic City, on riverboats in the South and Midwest, and on Native American reservations everywhere—horse players began to lose interest in improving the breed. They headed for venues where they could place 10 bets a minute rather than 10 bets a day. Attendance fell at racetracks. This translated into lower handles (gross dollars bet), smaller purses and less tax revenues.
To siphon cash away from the Native American casinos, state representatives passed a legislation that allowed racetracks to double as slot parlors. This was a boon to horse racing as well as state and local government coffers.
An example of racing with no slot machine revenue in New York state was when the venerable New York Racing Association—which oversees Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga race tracks—declared bankruptcy on Nov. 3, 2006.
Tired of ceding slot money to Atlantic City and Delaware Park, the Pennsylvania legislature voted—and the governor signed—a bill authorizing six slot parlors at racetracks around the state, and five more in urban areas, including two in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Contenders
Donald Trump submitted an elegant proposal for a casino on the site of the old Budd railroad car factory in Northwest Philadelphia. Two other organizations came up with plans for slot parlors on the west bank of the Delaware River—Pinnacle Entertainment and Planet Hollywood. All three were blown off by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. The two winners:
* SugarHouse, the baby of Chicago real estate mogul Neil G. Bluhm, is to be situated on the Delaware River, just north of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Included will be a 500-room hotel, outdoor dining and boat slips.
* Foxwoods is also slated for the banks of the Delaware. Its investors represent a blue ribbon roster of Philadelphia’s power elite—men and women of enormous influence, wealth and political connections. Without question, they’re going to lose their shirts and bras by creating a monumental real estate debacle. Among the roster of greedy ghouls bent on destroying South Philadelphia:
Edward M. Snider—Chairman/part-owner, Comcast-Spectacor, whose holdings include the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team and the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team.
Billy King—President and general manager, the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team.
(The current won-lost record of the 76ers (9-25) is an indication of the caliber and business acumen of Ed Snider and Billy King.)
Ronald Rubin—Chairman, CEO and trustee, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, and a major financial supporter of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D. Phila.).
Melissa Silver—Daughter of Lewis Katz, a partner in the New Jersey Nets basketball team.
Garry Maddox—Eight-time Gold Glove Phillies center fielder and hero of the 1980 World Series, CEO of A. Pomerantz & Co., a furniture company, and board member of the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia.
Quincy Jones—Recording industry celebrity and winner of 26 Grammys.
Dawn Staley—Temple University women’s basketball coach and three-time Olympian chosen to carry the American Flag in the 2004 summer games opening ceremony.
Sylvia DiBona—Widow of G. Fred DiBona Jr., former Independence Blue Cross president and CEO.
Foxwoods will be situated on 16.5 acres of vacant land on the Delaware River, adjacent to one large shopping mall and across the street from several others. The final complex—156,000 sq. ft. with an eight-story parking garage for 5,400 cars—will house 5,000 slot machines.
The $560 million project is expected to create 950 jobs and annually generate a city tax revenue of $25.3 million and a state tax revenue of $185.5 million.
The Problem: You Can’t Get There From Here
At the end of this story is a map of the area showing the locale of Foxwoods.
The vast blank areas around the Foxwoods property represent shopping malls, strip malls, businesses, condos and office complexes, where thousands of neighbors come every day to live, shop, dine and work. Here are more than 60 retailers, restaurants and workplaces ranging from small convenience shops, gas stations, a tanning parlor and bookshop, to giant box stores such as Lowe’s, IKEA, Best Buy, The Home Depot and Wal-Mart.
To the east of Foxwoods is the Delaware River. No entrance and no exit is possible unless you swim.
To the west of Foxwoods is a vast warren of tiny one-way streets with parked cars in front of row houses. This is the South Philly made famous by Sylvester Stallone’s training runs in “Rocky.” At every corner is either a stop sign or a traffic light.
Foxwoods will be situated on Columbus Boulevard/Delaware Avenue, a six-lane thoroughfare that has interminably long stoplights and is frequently glutted with traffic. On a typically busy afternoon, I’ve spent up to 30 minutes traveling one mile from Dock Street to Staples, which is across the street from the Foxwoods site.
Overhead and parallel to Columbus Boulevard is I-95, the main North-South Interstate Highway.
On the west side of Columbus Boulevard are two tiny entrances and two tiny exits for I-95, each allowing for the passage of one vehicle at a time; each situated at an interminably long light.
The nearest subway stop is 1-1/2 miles away.
In the words of The Philadelphia Inquirer:
This site has the Yogi Berra problem: Nobody would go there because it’s too crowded. Thanks to previous ill-planned developments, this area already features regular jams of visitors and shoppers stewing in their vehicles.
Foxwoods is projected to draw 6 million visitors per year or 16,600 people a day. The Orth-Rogers Associates, Inc. “Final Report on Foxwoods” estimates that 26,000 gamblers will arrive on Fridays and 39,900 on Saturdays. This is a guess. The numbers could be double—or one-half—the estimates.
Whatever the case, thousands of cars trying to enter and leave via single-lane feeds to and from I-95 will turn the neighborhood into a giant bumper-to-bumper parking lot with no one able to get in or out for hours.
City buses and excursion buses will be useless—gridlocked and unable to move.
Add to the mix the usual number of flat tires, overheated engines, fender-benders and road rage incidents, and a traffic nightmare of epic proportions will be created.
Slot players are hardly likely to stop off at Super Fresh to do a little food shopping, pick up building supplies at Lowe’s and The Home Depot, or browse for sailing books and charts at the Pilot House. They come to gamble. Period.
Regular customers of these 60 stores will go elsewhere rather than spend hours in a car.
With no customers, the stores will close. The 950 new jobs at Foxwoods will be offset by more than a thousand jobs lost at the shuttered businesses.
The cost of lost shopping convenience to many thousands of South Philly residents (myself included): Priceless.
Gamblers with cash in their pockets—and horny for action—will not sit still in stalled traffic for hours. Instead, they will tool along I-95—thirty minutes north to the slots at Philadelphia Park or forty minutes south to Delaware Park. These racetracks have easy access and plenty of free parking.
With gamblers opting for other venues, Foxwoods will go out of business. This entire once-thriving area of South Philadelphia will become a dead zone.
It’ll be presided over by the perfect symbol of government-sponsored corporate stupidity—the fastest ocean liner in the world—the S.S. United States, a giant red, white and black rusted carcass moored across the street from what was once the grand shopping and eating experience of IKEA.
Three miles north of Foxwoods, on Delaware Avenue, the SugarHouse casino complex will rise, replicating the disastrous Foxwoods scenario.
The only sick satisfaction will come from knowing that the greedy goofball investors will take a half-billion dollar bath.