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SugarHouse, Philadelphia’s first casino, opened in September with 40 table games and 1,600 slot machines. The highest stakes, however, are not being wagered on the casino floor, but are being fought for in the court of public opinion.

It was only after a years-long struggle — fraught with intense public opposition and legal complications — to secure support for a casino in the city that SugarHouse was given the go-ahead to begin its first phase of construction. But it still faces significant hostility from groups that believe the casino’s social and economic costs outweigh its benefits, especially in light of recent crimes related to the casino’s presence.

The most prominent of these groups is Casino-Free Philadelphia, which aims to draw attention to the disadvantages of urban casinos by countering casino companies’ claims that allowing them to operate in the city will be beneficial for everyone involved.

A report published in mid-2007 by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a state administrative body that oversees Philadelphia’s finances, added credence to Casino-Free Philadelphia’s claims. It pointed to research that concluded that a casino’s costs can measure up to 1.9 times more than its benefits, as well as reports that showed that there were five times more robberies and six times more aggravated assaults in areas surrounding newly built casinos in the five years after their opening.

Several crimes have occurred at SugarHouse since its opening, including an armed robbery early Friday morning. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that two men stole $340 and several credit cards from three women — and pistol-whipped one of them — in the SugarHouse parking lot at about 1 a.m. on Friday. In a similar incident last month, two men followed a man who had won $2,000 at SugarHouse to his home in Cinnaminson Township, N.J., and pistol-whipped him in an attempted robbery.

Other crimes reported in connection to the casino since its opening have been two instances of theft from cars in the parking lot and one instance of a broken car window, according to the Inquirer.

The casino has 500 surveillance cameras, 24-hour security patrols inside and outside the building, an outpost for state police officers and regular patrols from the Philadelphia Police Department.

But Casino-Free Philadelphia remains unimpressed. The group is currently in the midst of a campaign called “Reclaim the Riverfront.” As a part of this campaign, its members are conducting Casino Town Watches, in which they patrol the areas surrounding the casino in an effort to keep the neighborhood safe. The fourth Town Watch took place this Saturday at noon.

“We know casinos can’t be trusted to provide security and, unfortunately, we know casinos bring more crime along with a host of other problems,” said Lily Cavanagh, organizing director for Casino-Free Philadelphia, in a press release. “And, especially on a tight budget, the police can’t be everywhere. So we’ve started the Casino Town Watch to help keep the neighborhood safe for both residents and visitors.”

Besides the few crimes, SugarHouse has had an otherwise successful first month of operations, during which approximately 200,000 people have visited the casino. “Our success starts with SugarHouse team members who consistently provide a fun and welcoming atmosphere for our guests,” said Wendy Hamilton, general manager of the casino, in a press release.

The casino has been doing all that it can to improve its relations with the community and minimize bad press. It touts the fact that it employs approximately 900 people and has paid more than $4 million in taxes to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in just its first month of operation. It is estimated to pay $16 million annually in tax revenues and other payments to Philadelphia.

And in an effort to offset some of the costs associated with urban casinos and improve its public image, Sugarhouse has agreed to pay $1 million annually to the Penn Treaty Special Services District, a group established as part of an agreement signed in November 2008 to distribute donated funds to local organizations and support community development. SugarHouse made a $500,000 contribution to the SSD last month, bringing the total to $675,000 to date.

As Philadelphia’s first casino, SugarHouse is taking much of the brunt of Casino-Free Philadelphia’s public relations attack.

But the group is not going easy on Foxwoods, which is on track to become the city’s second casino. It is calling on the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which oversees slot machines and table gambling in the state, to revoke Foxwoods’ casino license.

Meanwhile, Harrah’s Entertainment — a company that owns and operates casinos nationwide — recently invested additional capital into the Foxwoods project, becoming a minority partner and reinvigorating the plan.

In the battle between Casino-Free Philadelphia and the casinos, neither side is willing to fold.

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