New casino in this economy? You crazy?


The utilitarian gambling hall erected on North Delaware Avenue at the border of Fishtown and Northern Liberties puts 1,600 slot machines and 40 card tables within easy reach of neighborhoods across the city, many of them low-income. With the illusive promise of winnings, look for the casino to feed gambling addictions that will trouble thousands of city residents.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 23

For 30 years, Philly’s leaders made grand plans for the Delaware riverfront. In the end, all we got was a casino.

The editorial writers at the Inky have a gift for understatement. Gambling at the “utilitarian” SugarHouse casino — the building is functional but ugly — is likely to trouble a whole lot more people than the thousands directly affected by gambling addiction. Half of the drop at SugarHouse will go to the state treasury, ostensibly to be used for tax relief, and the rest will be kept by the casino, its parent company and investors. That giant sucking sound you’ll hear will be all that’s left of hundreds of millions of dollars disappearing from the local economy.

The situation invites big questions. How much of the loot kicked back to the state will actually benefit Philly taxpayers? To what extent will casino revenues funneled to Philly for tax relief be offset by increases in crime and other expensive social problems that inevitably occur in urban areas where casinos do business? Is casino gambling likely to help or hurt Philly in the long run?

The Inquirer has been confronted with these questions for years but to my knowledge it has never done any of the in-depth stories that might provide answers, or at least point the way to answers. Its editorials are consistently skeptical but its reporters rarely write anything other than standard news and feature stories on the casino issue.

That’s how it went on Sept. 23, when SugarHouse opened. There was the skeptical editorial and there was the news story by Suzette Parmley who, at times, writes like a publicist for a casino. Yes, it was cute that Ben Franklin and the Mummers were at the opening, and it warmed my heart that the casino’s owner, billionaire Neil Bluhm, “looked on proudly” with his two daughters, but what about the likely impact of a casino on a city with an alarming unemployment rate?

Parmley quoted Las Vegas gambling analyst Jacob Oberman, who declared that “the Philadelphia casino-goer will be the ultimate winner” because the presence of of a third casino in southeastern PA — Harrah’s in Chester and Parx in Bensalem are the others — will force “better and more numerous incentive offers” to gamblers.

Amazing.  If you were an editor, wouldn’t you have told Parmley to include counterpoint from an analyst who isn’t part of the casino industry, someone who might have pointed out that nobody ever wins against a casino in the long run?

A bigger question:  Where are the Inquirer and Daily News stories that would research the arguments of the many economists and other analysts who think ongoing expansion of casino gambling is a disaster; those who think casinos are exactly what we don’t need in the wake of a recession that has washed away the savings and assets of millions of Americans?

For starters, I’m talking about people like Temple University economist Fred Murphy; Robert Goodman, former director of the U.S. Gambling Research Institute and author of The Luck Business; University of Nevada economist William Eadington, who heads The Institute for the Study of Gambling & Commercial Gaming; and University of Illinois economist Earl Grinols, who started doing extensive cost-benefit reviews of casino gambling back in the 1990s.

SugarHouse is open for business, but that doesn’t mean the debate on the wisdom of expanding casino gambling is over. Unfortunately, few of the editors and  reporters at the Philly dailies seem interested in this debate.

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