Should Philadelphia Get a Second Casino?

One goal of my blog will be to include local politics occasionally. Often times we get so focused on the national political scene that we lose sight of the fact that many of the most important decisions being made are occurring at the local level— this is doubly true as Washington becomes completely gridlocked and incapable of passing bills that used to command large bipartisan majorities (like the transportation bill). 

This will be my first blog on a local topic. 

The Philadelphia Daily News asks the question of whether a second casino should open in Philadelphia given the struggles of Atlantic City? 

My answer is a qualified yes— if the second casino would be either the Provence or the Market 8 casino, it would be a positive addition to the city. Either of the South Philadelphia proposals remaining in contention, however, will cause more trouble than they are worth. 

Why does the site matter? Because I think casinos are inherently bad additions to a city. Atlantic City's Revel didn't fail because it wasn't a nice hotel with nice restaurants and amenities. It failed because the business model was dependent on Revel being a robust casino at a time when the Atlantic City casino market was faltering. 

Gambling leads to all sorts of bad outcomes for people, and as casinos sprout up in every state, it's not as though casinos will draw lots of tourists, as they once did (which Atlantic City learned). 

Instinctively, I'd like to reduce gambling opportunities in my city. But we also need to evaluate what each proposal might bring to the city. And the Provence and Market 8 both offer crucial development in geographic areas of the city that need it. 

The North Broad Street corridor is perhaps the most underdeveloped promising parcel in Philadelphia. It is just blocks from City Hall, and development in the area of Broad Street around Spring Garden street might eventually connect Center City to the burgeoning Northern Liberties/Fishtown area, and spur broader development in North Philadelphia. 

This area is still suffering from the poor decision to locate Citizen's Bank Park in the concrete wasteland of South Philadelphia's sports complex instead of at Broad and Spring Garden. 

Now I'm not an economist, a city planner, or a developer. I don't understand why the Provence development proposed by Bart Blatstein and his partners needs a casino as part of it. Why not build a giant complex of retail, restaurants, entertainment venues, etc without the gaming floor?

Just as Blatstein's Piazza at Schmidt's has played a major role in the revitalization of Northern Liberties, a major development on North Broad Street would increase demand for housing stock in that area, and drive other development. 

But I'll defer to the professionals here. For some reason they feel like they need a gaming floor to make the development profitable. 

Similarly, Market 8 would help to revitalize the puzzling hole in Philadelphia's otherwise burgeoning Center City. Gleaming office buildings, and scores of popular restaurants and bars abound in Center City. And yet, just blocks from the Pennsylvania Convention Center, several blocks right in the heart of Center City are filled with low end retail stores, and the Gallery Mall, which has had all sorts of crime issues, and isn't exactly a draw for tourists. 

 Again, I can't imagine that a higher end development without a gaming floor wouldn't succeed in this area. But if I have to tolerate a gaming floor to spur development, it is worth it. 

There are also crucial differences between Atlantic City and Philadelphia that make me think that these 2 projects are worth having. First, even if gaming revenue is lower than expected, restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues should be successful, as they won't be dependent on tourists, as Atlantic City's casinos were. 

Put a good restaurant in a casino development, and Philadelphians will keep it busy, regardless of whether they gamble or not. The same holds true for the entertainment venues, and the shops. There also should be more inherent demand for hotel rooms in Philadelphia (and hotel floors could always be converted into condos if need be). 

Now the restaurants and stores in either development must be chosen with care. Another generic steakhouse, or chain restaurant isn't going to draw Philadelphians. They have too many high end local options from which to choose. But another Stephen Starr project, a Jose Garces restaurant, or a new project from a hot young Philadelphia chef will do well. 

Second, these locations are positioned nicely on subway lines, which allow young city dwellers to frequent them, and both sites should also have ample parking to allow for suburban patrons. 

Overall, I don't think that these developments will be dependent on gaming business for success. Both also offer the prospect to spur additional development that would be beneficial to the city and its residents. 

By contrast, if the Gaming Commission is considering awarding the second Philadelphia casino license to one of the two South Philadelphia based proposals, Philadelphia is better off without another casino. South Philadelphia is an area where people hop off of one of several highways to attend a ballgame or a concert and then leave again. 

The public transportation access is far spottier, and it is far less likely that a casino will spur additional development in the area. If the stadium complex, which has games most nights of the year, has not spurred much widespread development, I can't see why a casino would be different. 

Additionally, the already taxed highway arteries near the stadium complex can't handle substantial additional traffic. On a day when the Eagles play, or the Phillies play, and there is a concert at the Wells Fargo Center, traffic is already unpleasant in South Philadelphia. 

South Philadelphia also isn't crying out for development in the way North Broad Street and the Market 8 site are. It has the Navy Yard, the burgeoning area around East Passyunk avenue, which might be Philadelphia's hottest strip of restaurants, and the stadium complex to draw people.

If anything, South Philadelphia could use better infrastructure (for example, extending the Broad Street subway to the Navy Yard), which makes it more attractive to the sorts of young Philadelphians looking to live in the city. 

I'm also all in favor of reimagining South Broad Street, and turning it into a gateway that links Center City to the sports complex. Philadelphia also must address the waterfront area that stretches from Center City to South Philadelphia, and is crying out for development.

But one casino (the proposed Casino Revolution doesn't seem the best method for doing that. Rather, current projects like the wildly successful pop up Spruce Harbor Park, that build out from Center City seem like a more promising way of developing that critical stretch of Philadelphia's waterfront. 

A casino just doesn't offer to add anything to South Philadelphia that makes it worth all of the downside. 

Overall, I don't like casinos, but if they offer promise for areas in need of redevelopment, we should support them. Otherwise, let's leave them to other localities.