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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org