Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
Philadelphia’s first casino finally opened this fall after six years of legal and political disputes. The SugarHouse Casino’s story reflects the mixed emotions about legalized gambling that have kept casinos out of most major American cities.
Casinos are common in big cities in Australia, Canada and Europe. London alone has more than 20. A few American cities have casinos too, including Las Vegas, Detroit, Milwaukee and New Orleans, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City have none. With SugarHouse, Philadelphia, the nation’s sixth most populous city, is now the biggest with a casino.
The SugarHouse debate makes it clear why most cities are reluctant to legalize gambling. SugarHouse comes with some obvious benefits: It employs 900 workers and provides a new source of revenue for the city without raising taxes.
Skeptics, though, wonder whether the benefits are worth it. No matter where they’re located, casinos prompt fears about gambling addiction and crime. In Philadelphia, those fears are magnified by the casino’s proximity to hundreds of thousands of poor people. That proximity raises a question: Will SugarHouse attract much outside money or will it just redirect money from the city’s citizens? “It’s a convenience casino, not a destination casino,” says Dan Hajdo, a spokesman for Casino-Free Philadelphia.
In 2004, state lawmakers actually approved the construction of two casinos in Philadelphia. SugarHouse is the first, located in a former industrial area along the Delaware River near a residential neighborhood. The second casino, however, has been stymied by location questions. One proposed site, in Center City, drew local opposition because of its proximity to Independence Mall and Chinatown. Plus, casino backers wanted lots of parking despite all of the transit options in downtown Philadelphia. Opposition has stalled another possible site in South Philadelphia, where the casino would be placed among big box stores in an area where roads already are clogged. For now, it’s unclear when or if the second casino will ever be built.
Perhaps the biggest concern is something less tangible: that as a proud, historic city, there’s something not right about inviting in legalized gambling. Philadelphia has been wrenched by the possibility that SugarHouse will compromise its identity. But Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, says he’s confident that won’t happen. “Philadelphia is a major city with a casino,” he says. “That’s very different than being a casino city. This place is not going to be Biloxi. It’s not going to be Atlantic City.”