Sweet and Sour

The SugarHouse casino debate taxes neighborly relations in Fishtown.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Jan. 21, 2009

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Sweet spot: Building SugarHouse casino here is a gamble. (photo by michael persico)

In Fishtown the battle between pro- SugarHouse casino and anti-SugarHouse casino neighbors was ugly from the start. Anti-casino retired trucker Ed Verrall's black eye and swollen face, allegedly delivered courtesy the knuckles of a few pro-casino guys, established the tone early on in a neighborhood feud that's tearing the community apart--with each side claiming to represent the majority.

The hotly contested casino is supposed to go up on the site of the old Jack Frost sugar refinery on the Delaware Avenue riverfront. If built, SugarHouse will be a mere 192 feet from residential homes--one of the closest any gambling den in the country has been to residences. Fireworks over SugarHouse prompted a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal to warn, "Shouldering into Philadelphia may prove to be the American casino industry's Waterloo."

The community battle over the casino has ballooned into accusations of secret alliances, online name-hurling, point-by-point chesslike sparring matches and even reports of physical intimidation.

In the last few years, Williamsburg-style gentrification has taken hold of Fishtown and brought with it hipster coffee shops, DIY art galleries, higher housing costs and young residents. Tattooed art kids share the blocks with third-generation retirees. The recent revitalization makes it easy to frame the casino feud as new vs. old.

"There's a split in Fishtown," says anti-casino resident Morgan Jones. "Old timers vs. newcomers. We're the newcomers, if you haven't figured that out yet," adds the 34-year-old jeans-wearing, motorcycle-riding IT consultant, who purchased his home 10 years ago.

"In our group, the majority of people are longtime residents, but not 100 percent," says Maggie O'Brien, leader of the pro-casino movement. "I think people get insulted on both sides of that coin."

University of the Arts professor Jeremy Beaudry, two years deep into Fishtown living, thinks new-vs.-old is a superficial way to look at the battle over SugarHouse. Beaudry says it's that Fishtown newcomers tend to be more optimistic about the possibility of change through activism. He admires the so-called old-timers because they've held on to their identity through circumstances like white flight and the collapse of urban industry.

"Fishtowners kind of hunkered in and were able to maintain a sense of community," he says. "But those who have lived here for generations, what they've seen repeatedly is a city and city government which ignores their needs ... there's a kind of deep-seated pessimism."

Jones, along with Chuck Valentine and Scott Seiber, all own homes within blocks of the would-be SugarHouse site. They say that living within yards of a 500-seat slot parlor is not just undesirable--it's unacceptable.

The trio meets every two weeks or so to discuss SugarHouse developments. Their conversation makes it abundantly clear that fighting SugarHouse isn't a peacock parade of hipster civics, as some jaded Fishtowners claim. From the vantage point of the three men, they're running full-throttle defense against an attack orchestrated by greedy casino execs, approved by Gov. Ed Rendell and championed by their shortsighted pro-casino neighbors.

Seiber, a 46-year-old father of four, moved to Fishtown from Northern Liberties five years ago. His steady voice and glasses offset a bouncer's body, which looks like it can still go a few rounds in a fight. Valentine's a talkative, stocky, gray-haired 50-year-old dad.

Of the three men, Valentine's been a Fishtowner the longest, having moved here from South Philly in second grade. But as Seiber points out, many in the community still consider Valentine an outsider because he lacks deep roots here.

A recent evening at the M Room on Girard Avenue, the three men swap casino shop over beers. Asked what they'll do if they fail to block construction, Valentine gets visibly upset. "I'll leave if the casino comes here. I don't want my kids around that," he says. He pauses. "I'll watch market trends," he adds.

If it doesn't come, Valentine hopes to be buried in historic Palmer Burial Ground down the street (in the far future).

Seiber isn't sure whether he'd move out of the neighborhood if SugarHouse were built. "But it isn't out of the question," he says.

Jones takes a long swig of his pint and says, "I intend to stay and shut them down."


Both sides are making progress. Casino- Free Philadelphia, led by Fishtown resident Jethro Heiko, is kicking off a six-month campaign next week that's designed to secure the endorsement of a Pennsylvania politician. In November the pro-casino camp and SugarHouse signed a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a legally binding deal between a corporation and a neighborhood that's intended to demonstrate the corporation's community goodwill by providing funds and services to offset the impact of their presence.

O'Brien, who negotiated directly with SugarHouse lawyers on the CBA, says the highlights of the agreement include an annual neighborhood allowance of "up to" $1.5 million and an internship program reserved for neighborhood kids. She says cash points earned on a Fishtown resident's player club card--those loyalty cards you slide into slot machines to earn comps--will be redeemable at neighborhood restaurants and shops.

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COMMENTS

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1. FollowTheMoney said... on Jan 20, 2009 at 09:05PM

“It is very interesting that SugarHouse refuses to disclose how much money it is sprinkling around the neighborhoods. Fortunately, we know, according to a Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board report, that in 2007 alone, SugarHouse gave out $65,169.84 for charitable contributions and community outreach." Why would SugarHouse give out over $65K when they haven't even broken ground yet! Is it out of the goodness of their own hearts? Check out the report, here: http://www.pgcb.state.pa.us/files/communications/2007_Gaming_Diversity_Study.pdf”

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2. Andre T. said... on Jan 27, 2009 at 02:54PM

“Wow. My city struggles on. In this depressed economy, a casino is only going to siphon off what little free pocket change a resident might have to keep the lights on. Are we not aware of what the neighborhoods STILL look like surrounding the Atlantic City casinos? Are we not aware by now that the general arrangement you have when you enter a casino's gaming floor is, you give them money with a more than reasonable expectation of NOT getting it back? Lotteries are bad enough, supposedly working on mathematical odds, or as close as it can be approached by mechanical means. A casino cash cow is the senior citizens at the one arm bandits, which are programmed to NOT pay off big until at set times, like every 500,00 pull. There is something wrong with a machine that pays off "too often", it is shut down and pulled out of service by the casino. There should not even be a question as to this being unproductive for residential conditions. The money players want to make more money. We need jobs, even if they are going to be at the lowest possible wages, code word, "competitive". This is worse than a Walmart, or a strip club, or a porn video palace. A casino takes and takes and takes, and offers false hope while feeding addictions. It's a vice. Do we really need more of them? ”

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3. Anonymous said... on Aug 24, 2009 at 08:03AM

“I am from Philadelphia born and raised . I have been in atlantic city for 30 years at first I thought casino's were good and created jobs and I am sorry to admit all they do is keep people stuck in addiction . They lure you in with complimentaries that you pay for , then they feed you the crap that the more you play the more you earn and they have the nerve ( Gary Loveman CEO of Harrar's ) to say that they teach responsible gaming . That's a load of bull . Gambling is an addiction just like the rest of them , SEX , Food , Drugs, Tabaco , etc. The comment from the person who said to look at the neighborhoods in Atlantic city they are right . I live in the Inlet of Atlantic city and is has been cleaned up the last 15 years and gambing has been here since 1978 . I would love to work in a casino again but the problem is they hire so many foreigners ( because they are yes people ) that there are no jobs for many of American born people who have been paying taxes all ther lives . Thanks”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jan 4, 2011 at 08:58AM

“CARE A LOT REAL!!!!”

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