Philadelphia lawmakers take another stab at casino relocation

A trio of state legislators from Philadelphia is proposing a do-over for the process that put two proposed casinos on the Delaware riverfront.

State Sen. Vince Fumo and Reps. Bill Keller and Mike O'Brien hope that the new legislation will move those casinos, Foxwoods in South Philly and SugarHouse in Fishtown, to locations near Philadelphia International Airport.

The legislation faces significant hurdles here and in Harrisburg.

The 2004 state gaming law says that only casino developers can ask the state Gaming Control Board for new locations. Foxwoods and SugarHouse, which have spent millions of dollars on plans for their sites, say they have no interest in moving.

Gov. Rendell, eager for taxes on gambling to pay for property-tax relief across the state and wage-tax relief in Philadelphia, has told local casino opponents that relocating Foxwoods and SugarHouse won't happen.

"That remains the governor's priority," Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said yesterday of the potential gaming-tax revenue.

A longtime political ally of Fumo's, City Council President Anna Verna, learned about the legislation yesterday during a public hearing about Foxwoods. Verna looked shocked and unhappy to hear about a plan to move the casinos to the airport, which is in her Council district.

"Explain it to me because this is the first I'm hearing of it," Verna told O'Brien and Keller, who were at the hearing to testify.

The legislation would also need to lift a ban in the gaming law on Philadelphia casinos being built within 10 miles of a horse-racing track with a casino. That would likely rile Harrah's in Chester, which is less than 10 miles from the airport and already open.

The new legislation would require the Gaming Control Board to hold a series of public hearings about the casino locations and then issue a report within four months on alternative locations. If the casinos didn't agree to new locations the board could revoke their state gaming licenses.

The Gaming Control Board held public hearings in 2006 about five applicants for the two casino licenses in the city.

While the legislators say that the proposed changes would "end the standoff" between the casinos and the city on where to build, SugarHouse and Foxwoods say it will just create even more delays.

"It is unfair and unwise to change the rules in the middle of the game, and ask the operators and the taxpayers to foot the bill," said SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker.

The state Supreme Court, in rulings issued in December and last month, found that the city had improperly delayed the projects, and it ordered zoning changes to help construction.

Foxwoods spokeswoman Maureen Garrity said that the proposed legislation "ignores the Supreme Court's ruling that supports our right to build and allows us to move this project forward."

Attorneys for City Council have asked the Supreme Court to reconsider last month's ruling on Foxwoods' zoning, a move supported by Mayor Nutter. The court previously rejected Council's request in December to reconsider the SugarHouse ruling. *