South Philly casino still stalled in court -- two years after award

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At the hearing in 2014 awarding the second casino license for Philadelphia were winning partners (from left) Anthony Ricci, David Cordish, Bob Green, and Joe Weinberg.

A notable anniversary in the Pennsylvania casino industry snuck by on Nov. 18: That date marked two years since the state Gaming Control Board awarded Philadelphia's second casino license, to a partnership between owners of Parx Casino in Bensalem and Cordish Cos. of Baltimore.

Thanks to appeals to the state Supreme Court by SugarHouse and by Market East Associates, which wanted to build a gaming hall at Eighth and Market Streets, that second casino is not much closer to opening than it was the day regulators selected the proposed $425 million project at the Holiday Inn site near Citizens Bank Park.

That's good news for casino opponents.

"I definitely feel any delays are a good thing for Philadelphia," South Philadelphia resident Lai Har Cheung said Wednesday.

"It's something I would like to not happen, actually," said Cheung, 40, who saw what she called the dark side of casinos when her parents took her to Atlantic City and made her wait while they gambled.

Despite the holdup, it is unlikely that Cheung will get her wish. Losing bidders or aggrieved competitors have contested every Pennsylvania casino license award except for the six licenses attached to horse-racing venues. All have eventually made it through the legal gauntlet.

During a January 2014 hearing, one member of the state gaming board even anticipated a long delay during a discussion of whether the Philadelphia market had enough gamblers to justify a second casino.

"What we know now is that we're in a tenuous market, but we also know that no casino's going to open for probably three years," Gregory C. Fajt said. "We're going to make a decision. We're going to get sued."

It turns out Fajt was too optimistic.

It's anybody's guess when the state Supreme Court will rule. If it rules in favor of Stadium Casino LLC, the partnership that wants to build Live! Philadelphia, construction could begin a few months later, David Cordish, chief executive of Cordish Cos., said this week.

The company would still need 15 months to open its doors, according to a 2014 presentation.

That means Philadelphia would get its second casino nearly 12 years after the gaming board first awarded licenses in December 2006 to SugarHouse, which opened in 2010, and Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia, which lost its license six years ago after it failed to get financing.

The owners of SugarHouse and Market East Associates are doing their best to prevent the planned Live! casino from opening.

SugarHouse wants to block a competitor from coming into the market.

"We have consistently stated and market data confirms that the Philadelphia region is oversaturated with casinos and that a second Philadelphia casino will only do harm to the market," SugarHouse general manager Wendy Hamilton said in an email.

Market East officials, who argue that the board made the wrong choice for the license, had no comment, a spokeswoman said.

In March, the state's high court issued an opinion that, in large part, upheld the gaming board's decision to award the license to Stadium Casino, but the justices told the gaming board to look more closely at two narrow issues: whether Watche Manoukian, who owns 85.84 percent of Parx and would own 28.33 percent of Stadium Casino, is eligible for the category of license Stadium sought, and whether his financial interest in Stadium -- as opposed to ownership interest -- exceeds limits in Pennsylvania law.

In June, the Gaming Control Board published a document concluding that Stadium Casino should still get the license. That decision unleashed a storm of objections by SugarHouse and Market East.

They argued in briefs that the gaming board not only got the two questions it was supposed to address wrong, but also that the board violated the Supreme Court's order by not holding additional hearings. SugarHouse also said the board violated the Sunshine Act by not holding public meetings before responding to the Supreme Court.

Final briefs were filed Oct. 25.

Cordish said he was optimistic that a favorable decision would come soon.

"We're not going anywhere. We're going to build it," he said.

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