The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

Approximately 500 to 700 protesters marched from Chinatown to City Hall on Nov. 1 to protest a proposed zoning law that would allow Foxwoods to turn 300,000 square feet of the Gallery Mall into a slots casino.

Wharton sophomore Giresh Mirpuri isn't a serious gambler, but he visits Atlantic City about twice a month to bet $25 to $50 at its casinos. He wouldn't have to make the commute anymore if a casino is installed in Center City, as might happen next year.

But Mirpuri still doesn't think a casino should be built in Philadelphia.

"Adding a casino in an area where there aren't many other casinos will have a bad impact," he said. "It will definitely become an unsafe area, and a lot of people who might not have thought to gamble beforehand will get into it."

Mirpuri's concerns are echoed by an array of community groups in Philadelphia and on Penn's campus.

City politicians argue that they have no say in where the casino will be built because of a 2004 state gaming act that gives the developer control over its location.

Anti-casino groups, however, claim those politicians could convince the developer to build elsewhere if they tried, but have instead chosen to favor private interests over public concerns about the Center City location.

Most opposition to the casino stems from worries that it will increase crime, traffic, gambling addiction and financial difficulties among residents of Center City, particularly in Chinatown.

UA goes 'all in'

Seventy Penn students at Sunday's Undergraduate Assembly meeting wrestled late into the night over Penn's appropriate role in the casino controversy that has bedeviled Philadelphia politicians for years.

Debate mainly hinged on whether the casino issue directly affects Penn undergraduates. A group of UA members and non-UA students presented a proposal requesting that Penn study the casino's impact on the student body and pledging to create more opportunities for students at Penn and other Philadelphia universities to act on the issue.

But some attendees thought the topic was not germane to the UA.

"We think that we can come in, students who are here for four years, and tell politicians who have built their lives around the city how to do their job?" demanded College junior Zac Byer, UA vice-chair of external affairs.

College sophomore Grant Dubler, a UA College representative, argued that undergraduates do have a stake in the project: "We might actually want to stay here for longer than four years if they don't put a casino here."

The UA ultimately passed most of the proposal, with minor amendments.

Yet by adopting even this cautious stance on the subject, the UA acknowledged the unprecedented interest this issue has sparked on campus.

Forty representatives from minority and religious student groups crowded into the meeting to support the proposal. And students' dedication to the issue doesn't end at the edge of campus.

According to College sophomore Mark Pan, a UA college representative and one author of the UA proposal, "the UA has never established connections across Philadelphia" like the ones he and his fellow authors forged while collecting information about the casino.

Indeed, the most affective legacy of Sunday's successful proposal may be these new relationships between groups at Penn and in wider Philadelphia.

"The fact that we're part of a broader community in Philadelphia was key" to the proposal, said Wharton senior Mark Chou, another author of the proposal and a member of Penn's Living Water Christian Fellowship. "In the future, when things like this arise, we'll be more ready to take them on."

However, not all students oppose the casino. College senior Josh Roberts is "excited" about it because "it's a new form of entertainment" and a "great way of raising revenue" for Philadelphia.

He said he is convinced that Foxwoods will carry out the appropriate safety and crime studies on its own, without needing the UA to issue directions to do so.

Roberts is a UA college representative and voted against the proposal because he did not think the issue fell under the UA's scope, he said, not because of his personal opinion on the casino.

Creating a casino

The story of the Philadelphia Foxwoods casino began on a July night in Harrisburg four years ago.

State Act 71, a 33-line bill calling for better security checks at Pennsylvania horse racetracks, sat in the state Senate and House of Representatives for 150 days.

But on the weekend before July 4, state Sen. Vincent Fumo added 145 pages to the 33 lines: an in-depth plan for a new gambling industry to rejuvenate Pennsylvania's economy, including a mandate that two slot-machine casinos be installed in Philadelphia.

Fewer than 72 hours later, Fumo and another prominent supporter of the act - Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell - were celebrating its passage.

The state chose Foxwoods to build one of the Philadelphia casinos, according to Brian Abernathy, a spokesman for City Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose district includes the Gallery Mall, where the casino would be located.

"It's not like the city woke up one day and said, 'gaming would be great for Philadelphia,'" Abernathy said. "The [2004] gaming act created a licensing system where the developer chose its own location as well as its own design."

At first, Foxwoods wanted to build near the Delaware riverfront. But after encountering opposition from neighborhood groups and city officials, the company began to consider the Gallery site.

On Nov. 1, 2008, DiCicco passed legislation that transformed the Gallery into a "commercial entertainment district," the zoning designation necessary for a casino to be built at the site.

Abernathy said DiCicco's legislation was a necessary conciliatory gesture to Foxwoods to prevent the company from building at the riverfront.

"They've already made it clear that they'll go back to Columbus and Reed if we force them out of the Gallery," he said. "They could probably be under construction next week if they wanted to."

Showing their hands

Opponents of the development describe the casino as a monster: a "predatory" institution that will "economically cannibalize" the city.

Many have asked why the casino isn't being built on the outskirts of Philadelphia proper - by the airport, for instance.

The airport location is "not an option," according to Abernathy, because it is within 10 miles of Harrah's casino in Chester. The 2004 gaming act set up a 10-mile buffer zone between casinos to maximize profits at each.

"Here's the irony," said Paul Boni, a lawyer for Casino-Free Philadelphia, a prominent group that has regularly protested the casinos. "We have a 10-mile buffer zone to protect the casino [in Chester] but we have no buffer to protect homes, communities, places of worship."

Boni is particularly concerned about the tens of thousands of "problem" or compulsive gamblers that he believes the casino will engender in Philadelphia.

Aside from increasing crime and exacting a financial toll on Philadelphia's criminal justice system - an amount Boni estimates, based on studies, to be around $200 million per year - he notes that the casino will be profiting primarily off local residents rather than outside sources of revenue.

"The vast majority of patrons are going to be local - nobody's going to come to Philadelphia for a slot-house when you've got Atlantic City up the coast," he said. "That means it's basically local money going into the casino."

Indeed, Foxwoods seems to be making a special effort to attract Asians and Asian Americans to its casinos - a link to an "Asian site" on its main Web page translates the site into Chinese.

Helen Gym, a spokeswoman for Asian Americans United, is especially horrified by the effects a casino would have in the Center City location, which borders Philadelphia's Chinatown.

"No city in this country has tried to situate a slot barn at the center of its city so near to neighborhoods and residences," she said. "It's really shocking on a national level for a city to make such a move - it's unprecedented in this country."

About one thousand concerned Philadelphians, many of whom were residents of Chinatown, joined Gym and other casino-opposition groups at city hall on Nov. 1 to challenge DiCicco's proposal to re-designate the Gallery a commercial entertainment district.

Despite this clear public opposition to the project, the City Council rules committee moved straight into a vote on DiCicco's legislation just two minutes after the last speaker and unanimously passed it.

Gui Hua Zhang, who lives on Cherry Street in Chinatown, opposes the casino because she believes it will increase traffic and crime in her neighborhood.

"If people win at a casino, it's OK, but if they lose money they go crazy, they'll rob people," she said.

Boni said the city's support for the Gallery location is tantamount to a bailout for the developer.

"Foxwoods is hurting, they're desperate for development financing these days," he said. "If the city would take advantage of Foxwoods being in a tight corner, they could stop this."

Related StoriesStudents play their cards in casino debate - NewsGallery zoning up for debate - NewsFoxwoods casino may turn development focus to Center City - News
Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.