|By Jeff Shields, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 9, 2009--A bill promoted as much-needed reform for Pennsylvania's casino industry could also smooth the move of the Foxwoods Casino from its original riverfront plot to Center City.
Senate Bill 711, introduced in June, would reinstate the recently overturned ban on political contributions by those involved in the state's gambling industry and strengthen restrictions on state gaming regulators going to work for casino interests.
Those are but two of the more talked-about changes among the more than two dozen alterations proposed to the state's 2004 gaming act, which authorized up to 14 slots parlors in Pennsylvania, including two in Philadelphia.
But the bill would also provide a much more detailed process for transferring a casino license from one location to another, potentially protecting against expected legal challenges when Foxwoods actually applies to move from South Columbus Boulevard to the old Strawbridge & Clothier building at 801 Market St.
Legislators backing the bill say the new procedures would give residents a louder voice in the process and require casino owners to justify such a move.
Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.), author of the new relocation provisions, said the bill would make it "harder . . . for casinos to move because it establishes standards and public input."
But Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., which lost to Foxwoods and SugarHouse Casino in the competition for two Philadelphia casino licenses in 2006, said the changes were aimed at preventing Trump and others from blocking the move.
"It just totally does another end-run around the process the Gaming Board was so careful to engage in," said Robert M. Pickus, chief administrative officer and general counsel of Trump Entertainment.
In awarding the licenses to Foxwoods and SugarHouse in December 2006, the state Gaming Control Board emphasized location as a compelling factor in its decision.
Keystone Redevelopment Partners, a partnership that included Donald Trump, Trump Entertainment, and former Sixers president Pat Croce, wanted to build its casino on an industrial tract in Nicetown/East Falls. It was the only proposal out of five that was not on the Delaware River.
Foxwoods, facing neighborhood opposition and logistical problems at its original site on Columbus Boulevard in South Philadelphia, announced last August that it would move to Center City: originally to the Gallery shopping mall, now to the old Strawbridge & Clothier building at Eighth and Market. Disputes between the building's owners and the partnership behind Foxwoods have held up the start of construction.
The Trump reaction to the proposed legislation boils down to Trump's broader position on the move: If Trump and two other partnerships, Riverwalk and Pinnacle, lost out to Foxwoods largely on location, shouldn't those entities be allowed to compete for the Foxwoods license -- especially if the new Foxwoods proposal represents a whole new dynamic, including an altered ownership structure?
Trump Entertainment has promised to petition the Gaming Control Board to deny any application by Foxwoods to transfer its license to the new site. Regarding the other two unsuccessful suitors, Riverwalk Casino has previously indicated it would at least consider intervening in any proposed move, while Pinnacle has distanced itself from Philadelphia entirely.
Pickus said the Senate bill indicated that legislators concluded that a Trump legal challenge would be successful, and that "the best way to fix that problem was to make it go away."
"It's changing the rules during the game, or even after. It's 21/2 years after the game," Pickus said.
The law as it stands today is titled "Nonportability of slot machine license" and reads simply: "Each slot machine license shall only be valid for the specific physical location within the municipality and county for which it was originally granted. No slot machine licensee shall be permitted to move or relocate the physical location of the licensed facility without board approval for good cause shown."
The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Jane Earll (R., Erie), would go much further. It would change the title to "Portability and relocation of slot machine license" -- an indication of the legislature's intent, Pickus said. The bill would require from the casino a stated reason for the relocation, comparative analyses of gaming revenues and economic impact at both locations, a traffic study, and a public hearing, among other things.
"When the public has their say, it's more difficult for the greasing of the skids and the backroom deals that they're talking about," Farnese said.
State Rep. Michael O'Brien (D., Phila.), a member of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, agreed. "I've been making this argument since '07," O'Brien said.
The bill is currently before the Gaming Oversight Committee, though when it might come up for a vote is uncertain, particularly with budget issues at the forefront.
Brian Abernathy, director of policy and public affairs for City Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose district includes both proposed Foxwoods locations, said the changes would certainly make the relocation provision of the gaming act more difficult to challenge in court. And that, he said, would be a good thing.
"It creates standards, and the standards create a transparent process, and they're not easy standards to meet," Abernathy said. "We believe standards are good."
Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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