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Mashantuckets' Philadelphia casino plan gets extension

By Brian Hallenbeck

Publication: The Day

Published August 29. 2009 4:00AM
Foes call reprieve 'last gasp' given tribe's shaky finances

Pennsylvania gaming regulators granted a two-year extension of a casino license for the long-stalled Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia project Friday, ordering that it be built as originally proposed at a downtown riverfront site approved in 2006.

State Gaming Control Board members were "emphatic" that the developers not return with alternate plans for a casino elsewhere in Philadelphia, Doug Harbach, a spokesman for the board, said.

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe's Foxwoods Development Co. has a 30 percent stake in the project, having partnered with local Philadelphia investors who hold the remaining 70 percent stake, according to Maureen Garrity, a Philadelphia-based Foxwoods spokeswoman.

Opponents of the project hailed Friday's action.

"I find it almost impossible to believe that they will be able to build at the level approved in 2006," Helen Gym, an anti-casino organizer, said, citing the overall economic outlook and financial difficulties facing the Mashantuckets. "It's a last gasp for this casino. I think they'll find it extremely difficult to meet the conditions of the extension."

The Day reported this week that the tribe is at risk of defaulting on the terms of a $700 million credit line and is seeking to restructure a total of $2.3 billion in debt.

Gym, who attended Friday's board meeting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital, said opponents, including members of Philadelphia's Asian-American community, displayed signs stating: "Pull the plug." Their numbers were not as great as at an April hearing at which anti-casino demonstrators at one point shouted down board members, she said.

The opponents have charged that developers of the Foxwoods project engaged in "predatory" marketing that targeted Asians and that a casino development would harm downtown neighborhoods.

Since winning one of two Philadelphia casino licenses, the Foxwoods partnership had contemplated two sites in addition to the original one along the Delaware River on South Columbus Boulevard. At the urging of state and city officials, the partnership considered The Gallery at Market East, a downtown retail complex, and more recently an empty department store there.

In April, Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia officials told the gaming board they had secured the necessary financing for the conversion of the former Strawbridge & Clothier building.

"We're pleased to report that the critical elements are now in place to bring this project to fruition," Brian Ford, chief executive officer of Washington Philadelphia Investors, which represents the project's local backers, said at the time.

In May, the developers, who weren't able to secure ownership of the department store building, filed for renewal of their casino license, which expired May 29.

Under the extension granted Friday, Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia must have an "interim facility" with 1,500 slot machines up and running by May 29, 2011, Garrity said. Ultimately, the casino is to have 3,000 machines.

"Our original plan was a phased-out plan where we'd continue to build as the market warrants," she said. "That hasn't changed."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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