SugarHouse opens with Mummers and Vegas glitz

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Yashera Whitehead of Philadelphia said, "I've been looking forward to this day since they announced that it was coming."

Philly tradition (Ben Franklin and Mummers) and Vegas glitz (sequined showgirls) ushered in the city's first casino together Thursday, as SugarHouse officially flung open its glass doors for a grand opening along the Delaware River waterfront.

At 1:30 p.m., Franklin (portrayed by Ralph Archbold) arrived by carriage to deliver the key to a giant padlock, saying he was there to fulfill one of Americans' inalienable rights after life and liberty.

"The pursuit of happiness. I'm here for happiness," he told a rambunctious crowd that by just after noon had swelled to more than 1,000 and snaked around the entire front of the casino facing Delaware Avenue.

Some endured the nearly 90-degree heat for several hours so they could be among the first to get in - like Rosalina Martinez, 56, of North Philadelphia, who arrived at 10:30 a.m.

"They want your money as soon as you walk in the door," Martinez joked. Her prediction: "I'm going to hit."

With SugarHouse's opening, Philadelphia becomes the largest U.S. city with a commercial casino. (Detroit has three.)

It also positions Pennsylvania among the largest U.S. gaming markets just six years after slot-machine gambling was legalized. Its nine existing casinos ramped up to table games in July.

SugarHouse is the state's 10th casino, and the third in Southeastern Pennsylvania, joining Parx in Bensalem and Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack.

"The great unknown is how much SugarHouse will expand the market versus how much it will cannibalize Parx, Harrah's Chester, and Atlantic City," said industry analyst Joseph Weinert of Spectrum Gaming Group L.L.C., of Linwood, N.J.

Mayor Nutter, in Washington through the weekend for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, did not attend the opening ceremony, sending Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger in his place. He praised the 900 jobs SugarHouse has brought to the city.

Owner and billionaire developer Neil Bluhm, who flew in from Chicago with his two daughters, looked on proudly and sat next to a fellow investor, lawyer Richard Sprague.

But the four years of delays that preceded the opening - brought on by political wrangling, legal fights, and fierce neighborhood opposition - were not lost on Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose district includes SugarHouse and who once fought vigorously against it.

"There was a time I was on the other side of the issue," DiCicco said, alluding to about 20 protesters with Casino-Free Philadelphia, who staged two vigils Thursday. "That's ancient history. . . . This is the beginning of developing our waterfront to make it the best it can be."

And with that, SugarHouse general manager Wendy Hamilton proclaimed: "Let's get this party started!"

Confetti rained down, and Mummers strutted as the front and side doors opened. Hundreds surged forward, as security guards kept order.

Within 10 minutes, the 45,000-square-foot casino was virtually filled with bodies stationed at its 1,602 slot machines and 40 game tables. All that remained was some restaurant seating in back.

SugarHouse sits at Delaware Avenue at Shackamaxon Street, the old Jack Frost Sugar refinery site, and next to the Waterfront Square condo towers in Fishtown.

Though the casino has no immediate plans for chartered bus lines, the No. 43 and No. 25 SEPTA buses that run on Spring Garden Street will drop patrons off nearby. Another option is the Sugar Express, a free shuttle, that will stop at four locations in Center City beginning Oct. 1.

The shuttle did a special inaugural-day run Thursday, and getting off in front of SugarHouse at 2:30 p.m. was Elizabeth Clinkscales, 79, of Fairmount.

"We came to win some money," said Clinkscales, whose daughter, Brenda, 54, accompanied her. "This is history in Philly."

But the proximity of SugarHouse to neighborhoods may also pose a problem for some, said C.P. Mirarchi, who offers counseling in Collingswood to compulsive gamblers and their families.

"Statistics show the closer you live to a casino, the higher the rate of incidents," Mirarchi said. "If 1 to 2 percent of the [national] population are addicted to gambling, and 4 to 6 percent are problem gamblers, my guess is that it can be as high as double living this close to all the casinos."

About 15 miles north of SugarHouse on I-95 is Parx; 15 miles south on I-95 is Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack.

SugarHouse is marketing itself as a local casino, targeting primarily those who live within an hour's drive. It also is expected to draw about two million tourists a year.

"The casino by itself doesn't create room nights, but it gives visitors an additional activity and reason to stay longer," said Ed Grose of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.

Patricia Chandler, 56, of Atlanta, who stopped by SugarHouse on Thursday, said she just happened to be in Philadelphia on vacation this week.

"It's beautiful," the retired middle-school principal said as she was among the first to place a bet at a roulette table.

SugarHouse's opening comes at an auspicious time for Pennsylvania's gaming industry. On Wednesday, the state's nine casinos reported a nearly 24 percent surge in gambling revenue last month, to $231.2 million, compared with a year ago, thanks largely to a second month of poker, blackjack, and other table games.

Las Vegas analyst Jacob Oberman of CB Richard Ellis Group Inc. said he expected SugarHouse would do well because this market had only two other casinos in the immediate area and it was the only casino in the city. The fate of Foxwoods, the second casino planned for the waterfront, remains uncertain and is under review by state regulators.

"The Philadelphia casino-goer will be the ultimate winner," Oberman said. "Even though the revenue pie will grow, as the three casinos jockey for market share, gamers should receive better and more numerous incentive offers than they did prior to SugarHouse opening."

SugarHouse representatives anticipate annual tax revenue for the city and state in the first year of operation of $132 million from slots and $5.15 million from table games.

Thursday's opening represents the first phase for SugarHouse, which plans to expand as market conditions dictate.

Those who live near the casino are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"We're viewing it like we would any other potentially significant change to the neighborhood," said Morgan Jones of the Fishtown Neighbors Association. "We're concerned about impacts and will be working with neighbors to understand concerns and do our best to get them addressed by the city or SugarHouse themselves."

Watching just as cautiously, from 60 miles away, are Atlantic City's casino operators.

Mark Juliano, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., which owns three casinos at the Shore, said that because SugarHouse was opening with nearly half the number of slots originally planned, it would have less effect.

"I do think it will be more impactful on the existing casinos in Pennsylvania than Atlantic City," Juliano said. "A lot of experienced gamers are now playing in Pennsylvania.

"Those are the customers that are going to SugarHouse, and they have already left Atlantic City."


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Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.