If Philadelphia is going to get stuck with a second casino, The Inquirer’s superb architecture critic, Inga Saffron, is putting her money on developer Bart Blatstein’s costly and ambitious proposal to convert the iconic former newspaper headquarters into a French-themed casino, hotel and retail complex.
But as Saffron smartly points out, there is no guarantee the final product will look more like something from Paris, Texas than Paris, France.
To be sure, Blatstein’s proposal seems more compelling on paper than the usual windowless slots barns that cater mostly to repeat and problem gamblers. But as Saffron warns, lawmakers better be sure to get a commitment in writing from Blatstein to actually build what he is proposing and not just plug in thousands of slot machines at the site. That’s because there is a track record with other casino developers promising elaborate tourist destinations only to build a convenience casinos that attracts mostly locals. (Exhibit A: Philadelphia’s other dumpy and depressing casino known as SugarHouse.)
Of course, a better course of action would be for Philadelphia to oppose a second casino until a real independent cost-benefit analysis is done to see if more gambling would help the city. You won’t see such a study because the answer is casinos are net losers once all of the costs are calculated. In fact, it is hard to argue the casino will generate much new spending since the bulk of gamblers it will attract live in the area. As such, all the casino will do is shift spending from other businesses.
Though for a price, casino supporters may gin up a study that boasts about the jobs and tax revenue that will be generated. Those numbers may even be somewhat accurate, but most independent studies (see here) show casinos also result in increases in crime, bankruptcy, divorce and suicide as well as other economic and social ills that cost all taxpayers. As a candidate, Mayor Nutter opposed casinos but is now in full support. He would be better served to go back and think about why he was against casinos before he was for them.
Blatstein may be serious about wanting to build a diverse entertainment complex, but the lynchpin to his project is a casino. Without gambling, the rest of Blatstein’s $700 million project isn’t viable. That should indicate where the real emphasis will ultimately end up.
But the problem is this: gamblers have lots of options today and do not have to travel far to get some action. As such, most casinos do not draw tourists from outside the region, a la Las Vegas.
Instead, the new casinos depend on locals. Most of the gamblers going to a casino on North Broad Street are going to be poor, elderly and working-class residents looking to get lucky. If anything, Blatstein’s casino will draw gamblers away from the SugarHouse, which will not translate into much new tax revenue or spending for the city. (Disclosure: I used to work at The Inquirer, so it is especially painful to think of old ladies and problem gamblers flocking to the former newspaper site several times a week to gamble away their Social Security and pay checks.)
As Blatstein admits, he doesn’t gamble and most of the people he knows don’t gamble. But even if he does build a mixed use complex, it doesn’t mean wealthier and more educated nongamblers will suddenly start throwing their money away. The new Revel casino in Atlantic City tried to go after the same high end market. But just a few months after opening this spring, the Revel – which received millions of dollars in taxpayer help to get built – is struggling to avoid bankruptcy.
Instead, Blatstein’s casino would be located on the Broad Street bus and subway lines, and very close to several schools and churches. No matter how fancy the slots joint is, the bulk of his gamblers will come from the row houses in North, South and West Philadelphia. Residents in the surrounding suburbs already have closer and more convenient casino options.
In fact, the gamblers visit the surrounding suburban casinos an average of three to five times a week. That doesn’t leave much time to go to Blatstein’s casino in the city.