Published January 13, 2015
Surging gun violence never got Kathy O'Neill to think about moving her family out of Philadelphia. Neither did an ever-struggling school system.
Only when plans popped up for two towering casinos — one just blocks from her South Philadelphia home — did O'Neill and her husband decide they needed to do something.
"We used to say, 'I guess we'll always stay in the city unless we get robbed or jumped or something,"' O'Neill said.
Though the planned slots-only parlors are essentially a done deal, the couple has joined a group hoping that, by being enough of a nuisance, it can slow down and then stop Philadelphia from passing Detroit to become the nation's largest city with casino gambling.
Led by a group called Casino Free Philadelphia, opponents are trying to force the casinos to move to less residential areas or out of the city altogether. They say the slots parlors will bring increased crime, reduced property values, traffic and pollution to their residential communities.
They also are trying to prevent a city popularly defined by the Liberty Bell, demanding sports fans and cheesesteaks from becoming known as the largest with a casino.
A state law opening Pennsylvania to slot machines dictated that Philadelphia get two casinos and it put the decision where they would go in the hands of a state board. That left the city, and its residents, with little say over the projects, other than to make sure zoning regulations were followed.
The Mashantucket Pequot Indians, who own the hugely successful Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, won the right to build a $560 million project on the Delaware River waterfront a few hundred feet from the O'Neills. Chicago billionaire Neil G. Bluhm and his company, Sugarhouse, were awarded a slot license for a $600 million casino complex several miles upriver.
Opponents are trying everything they can: Vocal protesters forced the adjournment of a state gaming commission meeting last month. Opponents have sued to overturn the state's gaming law, and they are plotting to delay the permits needed to build the casinos.
"We're just going to do everything that we possibly can to delay it and possibly stop it," said JoAnn Sherman, a longtime resident of the city's Fishtown neighborhood who would live a few hundred feet from the planned Sugarhouse casino.
The two groups that won slots licenses in Philadelphia hope to open their casinos as early as next year, and said they will not move to different locations.
They say their projects will bring many benefits, from jobs to civic improvements, and that opposition is coming only from a small number of people.
"We don't see them as a threat to the business operations," said Maureen Garrity, a Foxwoods spokeswoman. "It's not a question of if (it opens), it's a question of when."
Sugarhouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said many community members it has dealt with are looking forward to the jobs and neighborhood investments the casino company will bring.
Gov. Ed Rendell promoted slot-machine gambling as a way to generate money for tax relief, and the state's gaming law, passed in 2004 gave authority over placement of the casinos to a state board so that local political fights didn't hold up or scuttle revenue.
The law legalized as many as 61,000 slot machines at 14 locations across the state.
Five casinos are already up and operating, including two in the Philadelphia suburbs, with total revenues topping $750 million since the first one opened a year ago. The parlors have been a big enough hit to cut into profits in Atlantic City, about an hour's drive from Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania is getting a very generous cut of the proceeds — 43 percent of revenues — and as a result is expected to haul in more than $1 billion a year once all the parlors are open.
But opponents say their concerns have been ignored. The anti-casino group's attorney, Paul Boni, said the best bet is to fight the law itself — or just be enough of a nuisance that the casino companies decide to move elsewhere.
They are challenging whether the casinos have "riparian rights" to the land beneath the Delaware River, where parts of the projects would sit. They are also looking for possible environmental issues that could stymie the developments, eying short-nosed sturgeon and red-bellied turtles as potential allies.
Strong feelings on both sides have led to bitter neighborhood disputes. One casino opponent was punched at a rally near the Fishtown site. But even neighbors who support the casinos do so with qualifications.
Maggie O'Brien, who heads a pro-casino group in Fishtown, cautions that support could turn if neighborhood wants are not met.
"As quickly as we organized 560 people for them, we can have the same 560 people to turn on them," O'Brien said.
Skeptical opponents like Mary O. Reinhart cite studies that show casinos can damage economies by forcing out other entertainment businesses. If they can't persuade the casino operators to move voluntarily, they warn the fight will go on.
"I think we just have to keep stalling them," Reinhart said. "It may come to us standing in front of the bulldozers, but at that point it will be David and Goliath all over again."