The Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. - State gambling regulators Friday approved a 21-month extension for developers of the proposed Foxwoods slot-machine casino in Philadelphia, but issued a stern warning to stop looking for alternatives to the approved site on the Delaware River waterfront.
"We expect this to move and move quickly, or we will yank the license" that Foxwoods was awarded in 2006 for one of two freestanding casinos in Pennsylvania's largest city, Gaming Control Board Chairman Gregory Fajt said Friday.
Approval of the extension, which came without dissent, followed a hearing that was repeatedly interrupted by catcalls from a couple dozen anti-casino activists who stood at the rear of the room holding placards urging officials to "Pull the Plug on Foxwoods" and warning of increased crime and poverty.
Foxwoods executives said they would develop plans to open an "interim" casino by the new May 2011 deadline with at least 1,500 slot machines on the South Philadelphia site. That facility would be incorporated in a phased-in, future expansion, they said.
"It is prudent in the current economic environment to reassess everything that we've learned here today (and) develop a comprehensive plan that includes phases," said Brian Ford, chief executive officer of the local investment group that is partners in the project with the Mashantucket Pequot Indians of Connecticut.
Both Foxwoods and the other planned Philadelphia casino , SugarHouse, owned by a company headed by Chicago billionaire Neil G. Bluhm , have encountered stiff opposition from city officials and residents concerned that expanded gambling would exacerbate crime, poverty and other social problems.
A leader of the protesters predicted that a gloomy economic future for legalized gambling and unflagging local opposition from local groups , including civil disobedience such as obstructing bulldozers and blocking traffic , would prevent either of the Philadelphia casinos from succeeding or even opening.
"The writing is on the wall that the Philly casinos are dead," said Jethro Heiko of Casino-Free Philadelphia.
In a statement, Mayor Michael Nutter called the board's decision "a step backwards."
"The Delaware waterfront is a bad site for the Foxwoods casino," he said. "It was a bad site a year ago, and it remains a bad site today."
The SugarHouse developers have not swayed from their Fishtown/Northern Liberties site, also situated on the riverfront. But with encouragement from city and state officials, Foxwoods officials considered alternate sites downtown, most recently the former Strawbridge & Clothier department store at 8th and Market streets.
"It wasn't just the mayor. The governor requested us to make the move as well, as did other state officials," Ford said, "We felt it was very important ... to be good community citizens and to work as hard as we could to see if there was another alternative that might meet all of the collective needs."
Board members made it clear they would not tolerate any change in location.
Board member Kenneth McCabe said Foxwoods would risk losing its casino license if it sought such a change.
"At that point, it's a whole new application and not what I voted for," McCabe said.
The Legislature has authorized as many as 61,000 slot machines at 14 locations around the state. The 2004 law was designed to tap public interest in expanded gambling to generate money to reduce local property taxes, revive the horse racing industry and create jobs.