Ante Up on the S.S. United States?

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 25 | Posted Jan. 25, 2010

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Ka-ching? Is the rusting hulk the next place to put a Philly casino?

I have a proposal to save the rotting hulk of the United States.

No, no, I don’t mean the country. I mean the S.S. United States, that glorious liner that's decaying slowly on Pier 82 off Columbus Boulevard, where it's been dry-docked for over a decade. It was the fastest ocean liner ever built, and although it was never used for military purposes, it was capable of transporting 14,000 troops per trip and traveling up to 10,000 miles non-stop. The ship's history is Pennsylvania's history, made of steel from Coatesville, designed by Philadelphia native Francis Gibbs, and included on the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places. Nothing has been done to restore this national treasure, though and it may be sold for scrap.

Butit looks like the state is determined to shove casinos down our throats, and I say make lemonade from lemons. Sell the ship to Foxwoods and open it as a casino!

One of the main beefs with the proposed new casinos has been location. I used to work in Fishtown and drove past the Sugarhouse site almost every day and saw the potential problems: too close to residential neighborhoods, too small streets, too little parking and too far from highway access. The original Foxwoods site, between Tasker and Reed, had were similar problems but that's moot at this point. And the awful designs! Sugarhouse looks like it took design cues from Philadelphia International Airport, while Foxwoods' proposal looks like what happens when an architect used to designing Wal-Marts eats too many magic mushrooms.

It's probably a little too late to stop construction on Sugarhouse, but Foxwoods is a different story. Before they spend money on another ugly-ass building, why not buy the United States?

It isn't really near a neighborhood, cut off by both the Ikea Plaza and the Snider Shopping Plaza. It's convenient to both interstates and accessible by Packer and Pattison avenues -- both of which travel through uninhabited industrial areas and already serve the stadiums. Furthermore, since the ship was originally a luxury liner, it has all sorts of amenities: a ballroom, well-appointed guest rooms, a promenade deck, and a swimming pool. Heck you could probably put in a theater and even a maritime museum on top of the table games and slots. That would be the corporate nod to community relations and support for the arts.

I called up the S.S. United States Conservancy, an advocacy group dedicated to protecting and preserving the ship, expecting that my idea would be shot down with extreme prejudice. To my surprise, the person I spoke to, Jeff Henry, was open to the suggestion. "We just want to see something happen," he said. "We want to work with the owners to ensure a good future for the ship. Any kind of productive use is welcome." Henry explained that the interior of the ship is kind of a blank slate at this point, although the ship's power plant is still in working order. There's still potential.

Rehabbing and maintaining the S.S. United States would be a big task: that means jobs for a city hard-hit by a struggling economy. Done right, the ship would be so much more than a craptastic slots parlor: it could be a real destination.

To me, it's just common sense: someone's gotta pony up the money to save the ship from the scrap, Foxwoods needs a place to put their casino now that the last two sites have been rejected, and since the city and state are determined to foist these things on us, we might as well make the best of it. The S.S. United States Casino: a unique metaphor for USA in the 21st century: where suckers go to lose all their money chasing after get rich schemes, never realizing that the house always wins.

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Comments 1 - 25 of 25
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1. customdsgn said... on Jan 26, 2010 at 09:41AM

“What a novel idea for a truly marvelous ship. Retrofitting the ship into a casino would definately have the extra benefit of it being a showplace. I am not a gambler but I would definately visit the ship to have dinner or see a show after it was refurbished. I am sure that it would attract other gamblers from other states due to its uniqueness. By the way, even though I don't gamble, I probably would play the slots and lose a hundred bucks when I visit. That's a hundred bucks they'll never get otherwise.”

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2. schwinn140 said... on Jan 26, 2010 at 10:02AM

“This is a great idea. How do we get this in front of the city and/or Foxwoods for consideration?”

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3. Susie Madrak said... on Jan 26, 2010 at 12:21PM

“Great idea, Brendan! Of course, the building trades won't be very happy...”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2010 at 01:53PM

“This is the best idea I have heard for the city in years. Every time my husband and I drive by the ship we wish something would be done with it, and here is the perfect solution. Put the casino there, which we can't get rid of, and put in a couple fantastic restaurants, a dinner theater, it really could be the "it" spot. Unlike Sugarhouse, this is a place that I would actually like to go.”

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5. troy said... on Jan 26, 2010 at 01:53PM

“I hate the idea of casinos coming here, but I have to say that even I would probably pay a visit if it was on that ship! Excellent Idea! Somebody get this to Foxwoods ASAP!”

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6. Frank said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 08:29AM

“What a great idea!!”

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7. Alex UA said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 08:45AM

“Great idea! I usually can't stand casinos, but I too would go if it was on that amazing ship. Maybe they could do something on the adjacent land too and make it a real destination...

Also agree that putting it that far down columbus blvd would make much more sense from a traffic perspective.”

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8. brendancalling said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 08:56AM

“@alex (and everyone else): I just want to make clear that I hate the idea of slots parlors and casinos as well. I think they're a bad idea, a sheisty way to raise money, and (if pittsburgh is any indication) not reliable funding streams.

that said... put the damn thing where it'll cause the least amount of misery for families and neighborhoods.”

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9. Mithras said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 09:00AM

“It's a decent thought, but it won't satisfy the objections of most people who oppose any casino in Philadelphia. There would still have to be a huge parking garage built nearby.

Also, although per Mr. Henry the ship still has an operating power plant, my understanding is that all of the wiring and plumbing was ripped out when the ship was originally put into drydock for renovation. Presumably, also, the casino would have to convert the ship's guest rooms to hotel quality. Who knows how difficult that would all be. Any major restoration would require that the ship be towed back to drydock; you can't perform major surgery on a vessel like that while it's in the water.”

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10. brendancalling said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 09:34AM

“@mithras: "all of the wiring and plumbing was ripped out when the ship was originally put into drydock for renovation. Presumably, also, the casino would have to convert the ship's guest rooms to hotel quality. Who knows how difficult that would all be"

it's my understanding that the guest rooms were originally hotel quality: this is, after all, the ship that hosted grace kelly, marilyn monroe, at least 2 presidents, and a lot more.

The estimates i've heard for restoring the ship range from $100 million to $500 million. As for the parking lot, there's plenty of space available: buy out and tear down some of the more poorly performing stores in the Ikea plaza (if linens and things can't make it in this economy is there any hope for Raymour and Flanagan?) for the garage.”

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11. Alteyid said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 09:56AM

“I grew up in New York, and during the fifties I I would frequently see the United States docked at 45th Street and the Hudson River along with all the other ocean liners of the period. It breaks my heart every time I see it rotting away. Your idea is a good one and has the feel of something actually achievable. And while one might prefer a more inspiring fate for the great ship than to be turned into a gambling joint, lets not forget that there was probably a casino on board when it was in service”

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12. Mithras said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 09:57AM

“Casino parking garages are usually directly attached to the casino. And even if the guest rooms used to be hotel quality, that doesn't mean they'll be considered so now. Many of them probably don't even have windows. Are there elevators or would they have to be put in? Are the doorways and bathrooms ADA compliant? I would think the cost of making the ship suitable for a casino and luxury hotel would be much more than the cost of just making it suitable for tours as a floating museum piece.

I'm not trying to shoot the idea down; I'm just saying that there are significant reasons a casino would prefer new construction.”

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13. Ray said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 10:07AM

“There are several piers in the area. If we're looking to create jobs as well and relocate the casino, why not refurbish one of the piers and build it up for multi-level parking.

How many jobs would that alone create locally?”

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14. brendancalling said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 10:14AM

“@mithras: well, to be honest, the piece IS meant sarcastically. I didn't exactly do a swot analysis.
@ray: the longshoremen might not like that idea.”

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15. Richard Blair said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 10:40AM

“Superb idea!

I first saw the SS United States moored in Norfolk, Va. back in the mid-70's, before it was moved to pier 82. At the time, I was moved by the decaying shell of this storied vessel. When it was moved to Philly, I was hopeful that there would be a second life for the ship. A few years back, when Norwegian Cruise Lines floated plans to rehab the ship, there was hope.

To answer Mithras, the restoration of the RMS Queen Mary as a star attraction on the Long Beach, Ca. waterfront is instructive. Five star restaurants, a world class hotel, etc. - the ship is *the* compelling attraction on the Long Beach's waterfront. Not only would turning the SS United States into a casino be a great use for this storied vessel, it would be a centerpiece attraction of the Columbus Boulevard / Penns Landing area.”

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16. seand said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 12:34PM

“I like the idea. A lot. I'd just point out that the problem with the group of casino investors we've been calling Foxwoods is Foxwoods. They're broke. At least the, main operator - the Pequot tribal owned casino complex in Connecticut - Foxwoods is financially belly up due in part to some heavy allegations of corruption in the elected tribal leadership. So the local part of the team of investors we've been calling "Foxwoods" for short still has a chance to save their casino license but its the "Foxwoods" brand itself that is the weak link at this point. Look for the local investors to cut out Foxwoods and cut a deal with some other gaming company like Bally's or Harrah's or someone else but argue to the gaming commission that its still essentially the same license, just a different operations company.
Actually the news just broke, though the new non-Foxwoods casino operator is still under wraps.”

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17. seand said... on Jan 27, 2010 at 12:39PM

“Oops just saw the URL's prohibited. Well google it - the story of the bid for a non-Foxwoods recycling of the license I'm sure will be unfolding.

Re: longshoremen

Its not like they are doing a lot of unloading of cargo from a rusty, rotting hulk. There is no reason that they could not swap Piers or whatever so that traffic to the SS United States -casino was at the end of the row and away from active port usage.”

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18. Anonymous said... on Jan 30, 2010 at 12:38PM

“I have to say< I'm not too big ont eh whole idea of the ship as just a staitionary attraction. I think it would be better than the scrap yards for sure, but... I think the Queen of the seas deserves something better, like being back where she belongs-Out on the Sea! If she were to be taken back to seaworthiness and the word was put out about it, I'm sure we'd have people wanting to book a cruise or even a crossing if we could get enough people! And just like more people said, it could create jobs. I think we should start mailing the president about this....”

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19. Anonymous said... on Feb 2, 2010 at 01:17PM

“Make razorblades out of that tincan already. The people who own it trying to cash in on casino debacle. Check and see who owns it political cronies!”

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20. Anonymous said... on Feb 5, 2010 at 03:03PM

“This is an idea that is not just brilliant but could define the waterfront and South Philly. The cost is the issue obviously, but letting or mandating that Foxwoods new owner group have the license to operate gaming offshore with the proviso that they rent or buy and renovate the ship is likely doable if the casinos succeed, and they will succeed in Philly over time. This is likely going to gain speed of the pols step in and give some tax free status in exchange for saving the ship. Here is Rendell's moment to shine.”

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21. Liner Enthusiast said... on Feb 9, 2010 at 12:40PM

“The SS United States is a part of history we can't ignore. There have been many ideas for what to do with the ship, but every possible idea would take hundreds of millions of dollars, except sending her to Alang. I would hate to see her go to the scrappers, but there doesn't seem to be much of a choice on NCL's part. They aren't willing to sink millions into her refurbishment. They are simply going to sell to the highest bidder. I'd write my congressman and the President about her, but I know the US government wouldn't be interested in sinking millions of dollars into a ship that has been deteriorating for decades. It is up to the private citizens of this country to help the United States Conservancy to buy it from NCL so we can then raise the money to refurbish her, or do whatever it takes to keep her from being scrapped. We can talk about how much of a shame it would be to have her scrapped all we want. Talk isn't saving the SS United States. Only money can save her...”

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22. Jobs4Us said... on Feb 16, 2010 at 11:27PM

“Use government money to restart the ship-building industry in Philly.
A complete restoration of the SSUS would be the first task.
The ship would become the flagship of the country symbolizing the rebirth of american jobs and pride.
The shipyard would continue to grow, employing thousands, designing and building new military and commercial ships in direct competition with other shipyards around the world.
Congress would provide tax breaks so the yard could complete on a level playing field.
New laws would require foreign ships entering US waters to have been built in yards in the US or in foreign yards that maintain US standards for quality and worker safety.

These are the kinds of plans that could put Americans back to work and keep them working after the government seed money is spent.”

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23. Anonymous said... on Feb 24, 2010 at 02:21PM

“all people have been doing for years is talking. No one these days is going to spend money on this rotted old hulk. Just tow it out to sea and sink it, at least then the owners might get a tax break for making it into an artifical reef. Eventually it will probably just sink at its pier and have to scrapped on the spot while all these so-called fans of the ship beat their breasts and carry on. It's a ship; a pile of rusting metal; nothing more. it's lived its life.”

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24. We are going to bring her back to life and send her out to sea said... on May 6, 2010 at 02:39PM

“I love the idea but more jobs will be created by restoring her to her former
glory.....we are already prepping the purchase and restoration of the ship...
Dop not want to see her as a hotel or gambling ship....she is in amazing condition and the interior is a blank canvass....many amazing historic ideas are on the table and we plan on moving forward within if anyone is interested in joining us ...only those wanting to see her sail again creating thousands of jobs let us know...we welcome you on amazing us a say go big or go home and the big U is BIG....cheers Graham and Nadia”

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25. Jp said... on May 18, 2010 at 02:45PM

“Wonderful Idea, bring her to Fort Lauderdale and make her a Floating Casino”


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