A group of gambling executives eyed a 16-acre vacant riverfront lot in South Philly 15 years ago and plopped down some money, betting it would make a good parking lot for a riverboat casino.
Today, the fifth casino company to control the site since 1995 is expected to explain how it will transform the weed-choked lot into a snazzy attraction generating significant gaming taxes while not wrecking nearby neighborhoods.
Steve Wynn, an innovator who made his name in Atlantic City, built an empire in Las Vegas, sold it, and started over while branching out to Macau, China, is stepping in to save the foundering Foxwoods casino project just as the state Gaming Control Board is ready to consider yanking the project's license.
Wynn will testify today in a hearing called by the board, which has grown frustrated with Foxwoods' delays. The board fined Foxwoods $2,000 per day for missing a Dec. 1 deadline to provide details on casino construction. The fine stands at $186,000 as of today.
Wynn may be stepping into the project just in the nick of time. Foxwoods could probably use a new high-profile face.
Some Gaming Control Board members are apparently angry with Stephen Cozen, an attorney for the local casino investors, who last year became the public face for the troubled project.
The board in August granted a two-year extension for the casino to open by May 2011 after several members gave the investors a stern lecture on speeding up the project.
Cozen worked behind the scenes after that to have the potential for another extension added to legislation approved in January to permit table games at state casinos. That legislation gives the board the authority to grant a second extension to December 2012.
Cozen's effort were the focus of a Sunday Inquirer story in January. This month's Philadelphia magazine included a profile on Cozen that expanded on that story.
Some board members were clearly frustrated when Cozen's law partner Fred Jacoby dodged questions during a January hearing about the lobbying.
Cozen yesterday declined to comment on the board, other than to express the "highest and greatest respect" for the "tremendously difficult job that they do."
Tad Decker, another Cozen law partner and the first chairman of the Gaming Control Board, said he doesn't know why the board would resent Cozen's actions.
"Steve is one of the prime reasons why this deal is coming together," said Decker, noting that the board had been considering revoking the casino license, leading to a long rebidding process and even more delays.
State Sen. Jane Earll, who leads the Senate committee with oversight on gaming issues, said she certainly senses a rise in the "level of impatience" of the board. She isn't sure whether Cozen's recent attention caused it, but doesn't think it helped. And she wonders whether Wynn's letter of agreement to take on the project will be enough to calm the board.
"It seems like continuing gamesmanship," Earll said. "I do detect that the board is getting irritated, as well they should."
Gaming Control Board Chairman Greg Fajt declined to be interviewed for this story.
Wynn's performance today should be interesting. As Cozen put it: "I wouldn't miss this show for all the money in the world."
Wynn told a group of stock analysts last week that he intends to build "the cutest casino you've ever seen" in Philly to appeal to Italian, Jewish and Asian customers in nearby neighborhoods and commuter towns in New Jersey.
The casino lot, then owned by developer Bart Blatstein, was first optioned for purchase in 1995 by Bally's while talk of riverboat gambling circulated.
Bally's became Caesars Entertainment, which paid $45 million in 2005 on top of $20 million in option payments for the land, six months after casinos were legalized.
Caesars was absorbed in 2005 by Harrah's Entertainment, which unloaded the property because it already had a casino project lined up for Pennsylvania.
A group of local investors partnered with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which runs two casinos under the Foxwoods brand in Connecticut. They paid $64.7 million in 2005 for the land, with the local investors taking a 70 percent share and the tribe taking a 30 percent share.
Those shares are expected to shrink, with Wynn taking at least a 51 percent stake.