The Gaming Control Board's Monday hearings on Philadelphia's proposed slots houses were notable for two things: 1) How similiar all five applications are, and 2) How many members of the city's permanent elite are cashing in on gambling.
It should come as no surprise that the five aspiring slots houses each offer pretty much the same thing, since the state's gaming law is so restrictive and since the gambling industry is so formulaic. Each of the two winning operators will need to start with 3,000 slot machines - or gaming points, as the industry likes to call them. Industry formulas dictate one parking space for every gaming point, ergo each gaming house starts with a 3,000-car garage. Most of the applicants also responded with the industry's standard food package for a low-end, 3,000-slot joint: Food Court? Check. Sports Bar? Check. Steak House? Check. A non-gaming amenitiy like movie theater or outdoor dining? Check. Big-box-style architecture? Check. It's clear now that the only issues still in play for Philadelphia are siting and traffic.
The applications are so similar that the operators and their local hype-masters devoted most of their allotted speaking time at the hearing to trying to position their image. So one slots house is all about "charity," while another is "the real Philadelphia" casino.
TrumpStreet, the only slots house that doesn't plan to mar the Delaware waterfront, claimed that it will revitalize the run-down industrial neighborhood between Nicetown and East Falls. Pinnacle, which has a river site in Fishtown, made the clever move of hiring the Jerde Partnership, perhaps the best in the glitzy business of retail-entertainment design. SugarHouse, on the Jack Frost Site, touted its strong financial backing from Chicago real estate billionaire Neil G. Bluhm.
Foxwoods, which has hired Ewing Cole Architects - the same guys responsible for helping create America's dullest-ever baseball park, Citizens Bank field - claimed with a straight face that they really don't want those zillions in gambling profits and will give oodles to charity. The real chutzpah award goes to Planet Hollywood's collection of Philadelphia insiders, who've dubbed themselves The Home Team. Because its board happens to be controlled by ethnic minorities, they are claiming - without shame or irony - that their Riverwalk casino will do most to enrich the city's ethnic minorities - ie, those minorities serving on the board. In answer to the question of why their project is better than any other project, Planet Hollywood's Robert Earl thundered theatrically: "It's our intention to make Riverwalk a huge success." No doubt.
The list of insiders on the various boards is so long, it was impossible to scribble them all down. We'll just throw out a few names for the moment. Plant Hollywood, of course, leads the pack with former city solicitor Ken Trujillo, Gov. Rendell's former election chair Tom Leonard, Septa board member Herman Wooden, Parking Authority chair Joe Ashdale, talk-show host Bill Anderson, a former city controller, and the daughter of the late lawyer Obra Kernodle. I always thought Kernodle's main claim to fame was serving as counsel to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, but it seems that he had a "vision" for a riverfront slots barn and now we can't stop hearing about it from the grave. It's a shame this feels like an insider's game because Planet Hollywood has one of the better sites.
Meanwhile SugarHouse has Republican Party representation from uber-lawyer Richard Sprague and builder Dan Keating. At Foxwoods, the local line-up include business mogul Lew Katz, shopping mall magnate Ron Rubin, developer Peter DePaul, and basketball coach Dawn Staley. There's also plenty of work for the usual consulting suspects, Former city Commerce Director Stephen Mullin of Econsult and Orth Rodgers are signed up with Foxwoods, BLT is designing for Planet Hollywood, and Larry Ceisler of Ceisler/Jubelirer flakking for TrumpStreet. Of course, let us not forget professional self-promoter Pat Croce, for Trump. Every time I hear him talk I think of the remark by Flannery O'Conner's gunman in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." He'd be alright if he had someone to shoot him in the head every minute of the day.