SugarHouse looking for a bigger pot in year two

Next year could see a big ex­pan­sion at Philly’s only casino, bring­ing more jobs and games to the Fishtown and North­ern Liber­ties wa­ter­front.

On the last week­end of Septem­ber, Sug­ar­House Casino, the city’s first — and, so far, only — gambling house, cel­eb­rated its first year in busi­ness.

The casino also an­nounced plans to add a sev­en-story park­ing gar­age and four res­taur­ants at the casino, near Frank­ford and Delaware av­en­ues.

For the neigh­bor­hoods closest to the casino, it seems, it has been a re­l­at­ively quiet first year.

Neigh­bors have said that they have seen little come from early con­cerns that the gambling com­plex would bring high­er crime rates and road-clog­ging traffic.

In­stead, care­ful plan­ning en­abled the casino to settle in to its river­front home, while loc­al res­id­ents have be­nefited from the casino’s part­ner­ship with the well fun­ded Penn Treaty Spe­cial Ser­vices Dis­trict.

In fact, thanks to an on­go­ing re­la­tion­ship with the PTSSD, on Sept. 23, the casino de­livered a new round of fund­ing to the tune of $500,000. Cur­rently the group, which meets with ap­plic­ants from a wide vari­ety of groups each month — in­clud­ing schools, day care pro­grams, com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions and more — has more than $600,000 to dis­pense to worthy causes.

“We’ve got the money; we’ve got the mo­tiv­a­tion,” said Joe Rafter, PTSSD pres­id­ent.

Cit­ing re­cent suc­cesses — like spon­sor­ing a me­mori­al to fire­fight­ers lost dur­ing the 9/ 11 at­tacks at the Fire­man’s Uni­on Loc­al 22 in Old City — Rafter said the group brought sig­ni­fic­ant be­ne­fits to the com­munity throughout the past year, and he looks for­ward to do­ing more.

One ma­jor pro­ject he said he hopes to ex­pand is a sur­veil­lance-cam­era pro­gram the PTSSD fun­ded for the North­ern Liber­ties Busi­ness Own­ers As­so­ci­ation at a cost of about $100,000.

“We are very, very in­ter­ested in spread­ing cam­er­as throughout the SSD,” he said.

Since the SSD serves the areas nearest the casino, parts of Fishtown, North­ern Liber­ties and Kens­ing­ton could be un­der the un­blink­ing eye of se­cur­ity cam­er­as.

Rafter said he’s been in talks with po­lice of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the 26th Dis­trict’s Capt. Mike Cram, about link­ing cam­er­as dir­ectly with po­lice dis­tricts.

The PTSSD is also work­ing to get streets cleaned throughout the ser­vice area, and Rafter said that ef­fort still is un­der way.

Big plans

As an­nounced at the one-year cel­eb­ra­tion, the com­ing ex­pan­sion is ex­pec­ted to bring an ad­di­tion­al 500 full-time jobs to the neigh­bor­hood, mak­ing the casino host to total of 1,500 em­ploy­ees, as well as cre­at­ing 700 jobs dur­ing the con­struc­tion of the ex­pan­sion pro­ject.

With a pro­jec­ted start in the sum­mer of next year — to be fin­ished by the fall of 2013 — the mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ex­pan­sion pro­ject will bring the total cost of the casino to about $500 mil­lion.

The pro­ject will also grow the en­tire com­plex from its cur­rent 106,000 gross square feet to a total of 250,000 gross square feet and the gam­ing floor will ex­pand from 51,000 square feet to 90,000 square feet.

  That will en­able the gam­ing floor to hold about 3,000 gam­ing po­s­i­tions — in­clud­ing a ded­ic­ated poker room and a high lim­it room.

The casino will also ex­tend the river walk, a 2,000-foot pub­lic path­way that stretches out be­hind the casino and ex­tends along the Delaware River, by about 250 feet. Hamilton said that the wa­ter­front walk­way is be­ing ex­pan­ded to con­nect the casino to nearby Penn Treaty Park. Sug­ar­House, she said, is also work­ing with the Delaware River Wa­ter­front Cor­por­a­tion to cre­ate a bike path through the casino’s prop­erty.

Four new res­taur­ants will also be ad­ded, as well as a second-story ball­room and six ex­tern­al loc­a­tions for pub­lic art in­stall­a­tions.

Much of this has been altered from pre­vi­ous plans for ex­pan­sion, but noth­ing more so than the plan for a park­ing gar­age. As presen­ted pri­or to the casino’s 2010 open­ing, the 22-acre casino site would have seen a $73 mil­lion, 10-story gar­age struc­ture with 3,265 park­ing spaces built as a second phase of con­struc­tion.

In­stead, the casino will get a smal­ler, sev­en-story park­ing struc­ture, with a lower pro­file, and room to ex­pand the casino’s cur­rent 1,885 spaces to about 2,400 park­ing spots.

More to come

At the com­ple­tion of con­struc­tion, the casino will up its an­nu­al fund­ing to the PTSSD board to a full $1 mil­lion.

“We’ve been able to do so much,” said Rafter. “I can’t ima­gine the good we will be able to do once we get to $1 mil­lion.”

Mag­gie O’Bri­en heads Fishtown Ac­tion, a com­munity group that sup­por­ted Sug­ar­House dur­ing a con­ten­tious battle over zon­ing, and said casino rep­res­ent­at­ives re­spond to com­munity con­cerns and have prom­ised to hold a job fair for res­id­ents.

  “I’m sur­prised at how well it’s gone,” said O’Bri­en, not­ing pri­or con­cerns over the casino’s con­struc­tion. “But, we’ve had no prob­lems with park­ing, I mean, why would we? They have free park­ing.”

O’Bri­en said the PTSSD has spent the past year care­fully is­su­ing funds to worthy pro­jects.

 ldquo;They did new side­walks at [Palmer] cemetery. I mean, how great is that?” she said.  And, like Rafter, she looks for­ward to what be­ne­fits the com­munity may en­joy as fund­ing in­creases.

“There was al­ways the threat that when they opened they could just say ‘that’s that, we got what we wanted, oh well.’ But, they haven’t done that. They kept com­mu­nic­a­tion open,” said O’Bri­en, dis­cuss­ing the casino’s on­go­ing re­la­tion­ship with the com­munity.

Wendy Hamilton, gen­er­al man­ager of Sug­ar­House, said she ap­pre­ci­ates the PTSSD’s work to make sure that the con­trib­uted funds — a total of $1.18 mil­lion has been de­livered through the com­munity part­ner­ship to date — are spent in ways that best be­ne­fit the com­munity.

“It’s very grat­i­fy­ing to see it go to great causes,” she said.

A smal­ler pot

Ac­cord­ing to the Pennsylvania Gam­ing Con­trol Board, the casino raked in a gross an­nu­al rev­en­ue of $212.2 mil­lion dur­ing its first year.

A re­cent art­icle in The Phil­adelphia In­quirer (“Sug­ar­House Has Grow­ing Pains,” Sept. 25), noted that early pro­jec­tions claimed the casino would pull in more than $320 mil­lion its first year.

Hamilton re­spon­ded that those pro­jec­tions were based on a lar­ger plan for the casino, with more than 3,000 slot ma­chines.

“Pro­jec­tions were high­er when the casino was sup­posed to be big­ger,” she said. “We are a much smal­ler casino now.”

With its cur­rent stable of about 1,700 slot ma­chines, even after the planned ex­pan­sion, Sug­ar­House would have few­er than 3,000 slot ma­chines.

She said that, in­stead, the casino would add about 800 new slot ma­chines for a total of 2,400.

The Parx casino in Bucks County cur­rently houses more than 3,300 slot ma­chines.

Hamilton said that, in or­der to be “fairly close in rev­en­ue” with com­pet­it­ors nearby, such as Parx and Chester’s Har­rah’s casino, next year’s ex­pan­sion is ne­ces­sary.

“We’ve been talk­ing about it in­tern­ally for a while,” she said, adding that on busy week­ends Sug­ar­House’s gam­ing floor is “packed and un­com­fort­able.”

“We needed it yes­ter­day,” Hamilton said of the ex­pan­sion.

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­

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