Monica Yant Kinney: He's making a bet on an anti-casino casino

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The Provence, not your typical betting parlor. "I want a place I can hang out with my friends," the developer says. "I don't know anybody who goesto these other casinos."

Only Bart Blatstein would propose a casino that's not really a casino, court customers too smart to play slots, ask the moneyed class to plant roots on North Broad Street.

The man who whipped up an Italian Piazza in Northern Liberties wants to transform the old Inquirer building into a lush, luxurious urban Versailles with not one, but two private clubs for rooftop swimming. He's calling his legacy-making venture The Provence. If you can't pronounce it his way, you can't come in and play.

I'm kidding about the entrance exam. But Blatstein is serious about convincing the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board that a glamorous (or garish?) anti-casino deserves the state's last license to mint money.

"I don't gamble," the developer tells me in two one-on-one interviews last week. "I want a place I can hang out with my friends. I don't know anybody who goes to these other casinos."

The "entertainment resort," as he calls the confection, will span 650,000 square feet, with only 17 percent devoted to gaming. He envisions roughly 3,300 slot machines and 150 table games, with no room for expansion.

The casino is the economic engine necessary to drive the $700 million project, but to hear Blatstein describe it, the gaming area is already giving him a headache long before patrons start smoking their heads off as they lose their shirts.

"We're putting the casino on the second floor so you can't see it . . . it's not in your face," he says, excitedly, unaware of how odd it sounds.

"This is the only casino in the world where you won't have to walk through [the gaming floor] to get to the shops and restaurants," he brags. "I'm not forcing you to."

 

Betting on the inevitable

Having written dozens of generally cynical columns about casinos, problem gambling, and smoking's choke hold over the industry, I'm hardly an objective judge of Blatstein's dream. Especially since he's plunking baccarat tables in the newsroom where I used to work.

Politicians insist Philadelphia needs a second casino. Leaders in both parties already seem smitten with The Provence's elevated botanical garden and pocket parks on Vine Street Expressway ramps often occupied by the homeless.

Blatstein will have competition, of course, but barring an unlikely, underwhelmed response by state regulators reviewing the applications, locals will eventually be treated to another 24/7 temple of gloom.

Much has been made in the industry of how Parx, SugarHouse, and Harrah's Philadelphia so normalized gambling that they created a new breed of bettor: the loyal low-rollers in sweatpants dropping by up to five times a week wagering $50 a shot that they can't afford to lose.

Blatstein graciously says the slots boxes can keep their regulars.

"We're not going to let people walk in dressed like slobs," he tells me, hinting of a dress code, strict security, and no comps.

"We don't want that demographic. We want people with money."

 

Where the in-crowd unwinds

I've been astonished by how much money low-income Philadelphians are blowing at SugarHouse, so perhaps Blatstein is correct in his predictions about the massive untapped market of wealthier tourists, conventioneers, and in-crowd natives bored with existing options to spend their disposable income.

"This is about creating a nightlife that doesn't exist," he fancies, "someplace old world and elegant."

So The Provence (pronounce it channeling Thurston Howell on Gilligan's Island) seeks to sell high-priced footwear, smooth jazz, and ahi tuna tartare, with video poker almost as an afterthought.

Who knows, I tell Blatstein, the atypical pitch might mollify neighborhood critics freaking out at the prospect of armed stickups (like those encountered by "winners" at SugarHouse) and problem gamblers leaving kids in cars (an epidemic one summer at Parx).

In a way, the developer admits, he is pitching an anti-casino casino. "And you didn't see a buffet," Blatstein reminds. "How about that?"

 


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.