The SugarHouse casino debate taxes neighborly relations in Fishtown.
The latter "benefit" slices right into one of the biggest anti-casino arguments: that neighborhood residents--not tourists--comprise most of the players in this type of casino.
The pro-casino mantra is job creation and revenue. In a city with 7.2 percent unemployment rate, SugarHouse's estimate of providing 1,100 "high-quality" jobs, 2,000 retail and hospitality jobs and 2,600 additional jobs in "tangential service industries" seems sweet.
But the anti-casino advocates' mantra is "hidden costs." They say the city will have to pony up for services to deal with the social ills that come along with casinos, like increased crime, personal bankruptcy, divorce and addiction. Not to mention the impact on local businesses.
They point to other communities with casinos that have had problems: significant crime spikes in places like Minnesota and the Mississippi Gulf Coast; the shuttering of the majority of Atlantic City's restaurants; marital murder linked directly to gambling in at least 11 states.
Much like a day at the slots, what really counts is net win or loss. SugarHouse estimates net revenue of $1.2 billion in gaming taxes to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia in the first five years of operation. By incorporating hidden costs--like the police department's estimated additional $14.3 million a year--Casino-Free calcuates a net annual loss of $52 million.
Meanwhile, a once close-knit neighborhood has learned how to shove thy neighbor.
The Fishtown Neighborhood Association (FNA),founded in 2000, is the only official neighborhood nonprofit civic association. Once SugarHouse was introduced, a split shot through the ranks. FNA doesn't want to see SugarHouse built here, but it's less severe than other anti-casino groups; they're willing to talk to SugarHouse as long as the first point of discussion is about moving the site.
Some pro-casino members including FNA founding board members Maggie O'Brien and Donna Tomlinson were so angry at FNA's stance that they seceded from FNA and formed the pro-casino Fishtown Action (FACT).
Soon, anti-casino members of FNA (including Valentine, Seiber and Jones) formed Fishtown Against SugarHouse Takeover (FAST), which they consider a special-interest arm of the FNA.
In an email, O'Brien dismissed FAST: "What exactly is FAST? They do not hold meetings that I am aware of. My take on these people are that they are a loosely formed group who oppose SugarHouse casino," she wrote.
FACT doesn't even have a website.
Both insist that they represent the majority of their neighbors.
Seiber describes how some FAST members walked door-to-door polling neighbors for two days in February 2008 and says that their survey revealed the majority of the residents closest to the site were anti-casino.
O'Brien says FACT proved that most Fishtowners are pro-casino through their "Seeing Red" campaign last winter, in which pro-casino residents hung a red bow on their houses to signify casino support. O'Brien says she gave out 800 bows, which means at least 800 homes in the area are pro-casino. FAST counters that bows were found hung on abandoned houses.
FACT claims 600 members. FAST counters that FACT manufactures membership rolls by forcing curious people into signing a registration form before letting them into meetings, and that most "members" don't even live near the site.
Members of FAST say FACT has kept large men standing post at their meetings to try to intimidate anti-casino residents. Valentine claims to have a received a phone call from a newbie resident frightened by what looked like bouncers. He says between the bouncer-like dudes and people hearing about Verrall getting jumped, it's no wonder some Fishtowners insist on staying mum on the issue.
But as usual, people aren't scared to spout off anonymously online.
"People who don't even know me say things about me like, 'They're shills for SugarHouse,'" says O'Brien. "How can you say that about someone you don't even know?" she asks. "Or like when we had protesters and I got yelled at."
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