For SugarHouse Casino supporters, finally the big payoff

A crowd waiting for the SugarHouse Casino to open yesterday (above) chants for the anti-casino group to go home. Left: Players gather around one of the craps tables.

DEIDRE JONES may not be in the same league as legendary gamblers Arnold Rothstein and Nick "The Greek" Dandolos, but the Delaware County woman did carve out a little piece of gaming history yesterday afternoon as she appeared to be the first person ever legally dealt a hand of blackjack in Philadelphia.

Jones, who bet a black, pink and lime-green $100 chip at a $25-minimum table, was one of the hundreds of people who jammed the SugarHouse Casino on the Delaware River almost five years after plans to build it were first announced.

"I think it's beautiful," Jones, of Upper Chichester, said of the $390 million adult playpen as she watched her "hard" 17 (a 9 of spades and 8 of hearts) lose to the dealer's four-card 20 before she won the next three hands.

The debut came after years of outrage, breast-beating, hand-wringing and legal maneuvering on the part of casino opponents, as well as intense negotiating with (and check-writing for) community groups in surrounding neighborhoods.

But yesterday under the building's main-entrance porte cochere the parade of local dignitaries and power-brokers who gave mercifully short speeches ignored the rancor of the casino debate and accentuated the positive - most notably the 900 full-time jobs created by SugarHouse.

After the ceremony, which kicked off with Flyers anthem-singer Lauren Hart doing a duet via video with the late Kate Smith on "God Bless America," actor Ralph Archbold, dressed in his familiar Ben Franklin costume, arrived on the red carpet on a white, horse-drawn carriage. He was accompanied by two showgirls and had the large "key" that the casino's honchos used to open the front door.

Impatient patrons rushed the front door, and the 45,000-square-foot facility was filled in 10 minutes with gamblers, among them table-game players who didn't mind minimum bets as high as $25 (for blackjack).

Most of the facility's 1,602 slot machines appeared to be in use as well. Hundreds of other visitors milled around, taking in the sights of the region's newest betting parlor.

Among them was Bryant Carter of West Philly, who declared: "I think it's fantastic. I love the layout. It's very nice, very nice."

Carter was one of several people interviewed who called SugarHouse extremely convenient. Another was Pedro Vasquez, who took a 20-minute bike ride from his North Philly home.

"I think I'll probably come here; it's easier for me," Vasquez said, noting that he used to visit Atlantic City every two months.

Nursing a Heineken at Lucky Red, one of the casino's two bars, Eddie Rodriguez of West Deptford, N.J., called the new casino "pretty cool." A home remodeler, Rodriguez praised SugarHouse's design and said he looked forward to returning after a night of club-hopping on the Columbus Boulevard strip.

Just because SugarHouse finally opened didn't mean the end of protests against it. Though overwhelmingly outnumbered by casino supporters - some of whom yelled, "Go home!" - a few dozen opponents were on hand with signs bearing such slogans as "Reclaim Our Neighborhoods" and "Reclaim Our Jobs."

The Rev. Robin Hynicka, of the Arch Street United Methodist Church and a volunteer with Casino-Free Philadelphia, insisted that the odds are stacked against the people waiting to get into the casino.

"The myth that they'll be winners is wrong," he said. "The reality is that they'll be losers and they won't be able to pay their rent and put food on their table. You don't see anybody here in three-piece suits."

Francesca Lo Basso of Casino Town Watch said, "The only way for SugarHouse to make a profit is through cultivating addiction."

She identified as "predatory" such casino-marketing tactics as round-the-clock operations, free alcohol and easy-to-establish lines of credit, which, she charged, "allows [gamblers] to potentially go bankrupt in one night."

Lo Basso added that SugarHouse's exemption from the city's smoking ban will put "workers' and patrons' health at risk."

But if those are concerns of SugarHouse's execs, they were keeping it a secret yesterday. As Chief Executive Officer Greg Carlin accepted congratulations from various well-wishers, he was asked when expansion plans would be developed.

"We're already working on 'em," he said with a smile.