The SugarHouse casino debate taxes neighborly relations in Fishtown.
O'Brien's been frequently accused of forming FACT as a front for the casino. Over the phone she denies the charges and says that she's been so distraught about personal attacks in comments on blogs and online articles that she's stopped reading them.
"We're all volunteers and we're not shills for SugarHouse and no one is paying us. Guess what? They couldn't have paid me enough to go through 14 months of these negotiations with lawyers," she adds, referring to the Community Benefits Agreement, which was signed by members of FACT and New Kensington Community Development Corporation but not members of either Fishtown nor Northern Liberties' official representative organizations.
Commenters also speculated that O'Brien was promised a plush job when the casino opens. O'Brien, who toils in the sales department at the Philadelphia Inquirer, laughs it off, saying if she doesn't make it to retirement at the Inky she'd like to work somewhere stress-free, like a Hallmark gift shop.
Meanwhile, Chuck Valentine says he can't even seek refuge from the neighborhood drama during Sunday mass. Holy Name of Jesus church on East Gaul Street, within walking distance from the proposed casino site, reportedly accepted $10,000 from SugarHouse to offset tuition at St. Laurentius Catholic School, where parish kids go since Holy Name's school closed in 2006.
SugarHouse has drizzled an undisclosed amount of money on the community to win hearts. SugarHouse president Bob Sheldon has been quoted saying the casino doesn't want to "broadcast" the total amount and recipient list.
Father Francis Groarke, pastor of Holy Name, told PennPraxis, "They've given us $10,000--free money, no questions asked--to help keep tuition reasonable. I think their commitment to the community is going to be a strong one."
Just down the street at the M-Room, Valentine is pissed that his church is in bed with a corporation he finds immoral.
"I'm very angry and upset with my pastor," says Valentine. "The FACT meetings are held in Holy Name. It's frustrating to me because some studies show that casinos hurt church revenue too. ... The pastor is somewhat naive. I tried to confront him," says Valentine. "He sort of blew me off."
The first call into the Holy Name rectory to request comment from Father Groarke on the casino and the neighborhood went unreturned. On the second call, Father Groarke yelled, "No comment!" in the background.
A "CasiNO!" sign hangs in a window a block away from the 102-year-old church.
Despite the drama over SugarHouse, O'Brien insists the community's still close-knit, pointing to the way the neighborhood came together to fight the library and fire house closings.
"That's more propaganda. 'Ooh, the neighborhood's split. People who have been friends for 30 years no longer talk to one another.' Nonsense," she says. "If anyone has lost a friend of it, then that person wasn't a good friend to begin with."
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