Karen Heller: Philadelphia's would-be casino operators put on a show

Steve Wynn shows off what a guest room would look like if he builds a hotel and casino in Philadelphia. He appears in front of Pa. Gaming Control Board hearing for a second gaming license in Philadelphia, Pa. on February 12, 2013. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )

You don't want to follow Steven Wynn. Ever. Last week, this unfortunate task fell to Bart Blatstein, who has considerable P.T. Barnum skills, but still.

Wynn, who runs resorts in Las Vegas and Macau, promised he would resist bragging before telling the SRO crowd that his $900 million casino hotel would be the nicest on the East Coast. Really, in Fishtown? Wynn boasted that the site is 10 minutes from 30th Street Station, which is true if you have a helicopter.

Last week marked the kickoff of the second coming of the city's second gambling emporium: six developers vying to win the golden license, sort of a Mr. Philly Casino pageant. If you have a weakness for hyperbole and neon, the season's best show took place at the Convention Center, fitting given that the place was a huge gamble. It was a pitchfest on steroids.

Remember Foxwoods, the four-year odyssey to build a city slots emporium that ended in, well, nothing? This foray promises to be different, ending in something. I'm no fan of gambling, but if we must have a second casino, it should add value to the city, increase tourism, provide ancillary entertainment, and revive a neighborhood, instead of offering another box of slots.

Developer promos hawked images of so many toothy, youthful patrons, the sort that never seem to frequent local casinos, that I suspect this has become a modeling subspecialty. Bidders engaged in a "Who Is Most Philly?" contest, sharing rowhouse-to-titan success stories, though I wonder if the seven members of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board care.

Only one commissioner is from the city, but that's beside the point. The state's 11 casinos grossed $3.1 billion last year, with more than half the proceeds enriching state coffers. The board is charged with choosing the project that will produce the greatest tax revenue for the commonwealth while creating the best fit for the city.

Part of a developer's job is to create a need where none may exist. So, for such a "world class" city, the audience heard frequently how Philadelphia still lacks fun and wow, and reasons for travelers to get off the interstate or Amtrak.

Wynn is a natural entertainer, but it's possible your child comes better prepared for a class presentation than he arrived here. Perhaps he believes that a charm offense and "$2 billion in cash" is good enough. But Wynn Philadelphia's garish design looks dated before it's built and strongly resembles a 1960s stereo console.

The three most ambitious developers have vastly different visions of what the city needs. Wynn believes casinos are "a driving business," and his project is all about the hotel and horizontal design. Ken Goldenberg pitched vertical integration, a gallery of entertainment offerings, and "the most pedestrian-friendly location," convenient to multiple mass-transit options. Goldenberg's $500 million Market8, at Eighth and Market, is "in the middle of everything," which I can tell you, since I work here, it most definitely is not.

Goldenberg is the only developer who hired a top architectural firm, Enrique Norten's Ten Arquitectos, and his pitch was the most exhaustive. Selfishly, and a tad lazily, I would enjoy having a razzle-dazzle news story unfold across the street instead of staring at the grim surface lot that's been here a dozen years "in the middle of everything" after Goldenberg's DisneyQuest dream tanked.

Blatstein wants to create "Provence" in The Inquirer's old office at Broad and Callowhill, a place that long reminded people of many places, but southern France was not one of them. His $700 million design seems more reminiscent of a Mormon temple than Nice, but with plenty of entertainment options in a neighborhood that has few. The three other projects would be located in South Philadelphia, less intrusive but also offering less sizzle.

Next month, the public can register on the Gaming Board website to testify at Convention Center hearings April 11 and 12 (http://gamingcontrolboard.pa.gov/, where video of last week's presentations is posted). The board believes awarding a license will take six to nine months. But the smart money is on nine, with the show far from over.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.