Harrah’s, Foxwoods not biting on SS United States proposal

If Harrah's Entertainment and the Foxwoods Casino partners are interested in using the SS United States as the centerpiece of their proposed South Philadelphia gaming hall, they aren't showing it.

On Monday, supporters of the derelict ocean liner publicly unveiled their vision for restoring the historic ship and incorporating it into an ambitious casino complex on the Delaware waterfront. The 990-foot vessel would have to be moved about three-quarters of a mile north from its berth at Pier 82 to the 16-acre Foxwoods site.

However, lawyers for Foxwoods and Harrah's appear more focused on working out their own plan than entertaining a radical new concept for the project. They have until Dec. 10 to present the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board with definitive agreements on financing and managing a $275 million casino on Columbus Boulevard, between Tasker and Reed Streets.

Harrah's and Citizens Bank, a creditor of the Foxwoods project, would become equity partners in the new venture. Harrah's, in turn, would operate a 60,000-square-foot "Harrah's Horseshoe" casino.

Stephen A. Cozen, a lawyer for the Foxwoods partners, had no comment about using the SS United States as part of the plan - an idea made public only in the last few days.

"We are working hard with Harrah's and Citizens to finalize our transaction," he said, "and bring jobs and tax revenues to the city and state."

A spokeswoman for Harrah's did not return calls for comment.

Members of the SS United States Conservancy, however, were eager to talk up their proposal for converting the 58-year-old liner into a casino and boutique hotel.

In the Center City offices of architect Stephen Varenhorst, supporters of a ship-centric project displayed a model of what the complex could look like in a few years.

A 10-story garage, featuring one floor of casino space, would be located on the southern length of the tract. In the middle, a new dock would be cut into the property, with unblocked access for pedestrians from Columbus Boulevard to the ship.

The northern side of the lot would be lined with residential buildings.

It would be easy to brush off this vision as a flight of fancy were it not for one Philadelphian: billionaire philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest.

Lenfest has thrown his support - and money - into the rescue of the SS United States. He was not at Monday's news conference, but Susan Gibbs, president of the conservancy, said his involvement had "changed everything."

For more than a decade, preservationists have struggled to come up with a way to save the ship - built in 1952 and retired in 1969 - from the scrap yard. It still holds the speed record for a westward crossing of the Atlantic, set on its maiden voyage.

Only after Lenfest joined forces with the conservancy last July could the group turn its hopes for the ship into a plan of action, said Gibbs, whose grandfather designed the vessel.

Lenfest pledged $5.8 million to cover both the cost of buying the ship and maintaining it for 20 months. The conservancy has an exclusive option until Jan. 31 to buy the ocean liner from Norwegian Cruise Lines for an estimated $3 million.

"We can take control of the vessel," Gibbs said. "That changed the game."

Prior to Lenfest's involvement, the conservancy had the funding only to raise public awareness about the SS United States and its perilous straits - for instance, by producing a documentary and creating a museum display.

"We didn't have leverage . . . to really be taken seriously and have a say in the ship's future," Gibbs said.

Using the ship as a casino is the most financially viable idea for saving it, she said. Income from a gaming operation could help pay for the vessel's renovation, estimated at $200 million. "The casino component is critical for revenue-raising," she said.

In case the proposal falls flat, she added, the group is exploring possibilities in New York and Miami that would include converting the ship to a boutique hotel.

It also has made "preliminary investigations" into moving the vessel to the Navy Yard or the Packer Terminal, she said.

"We certainly aren't closing any doors," she said. Lenfest, she added, "has made it clear: 'Let's make something happen.' "


Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.