Long before construction crews broke ground at SugarHouse Casino, owner Neil Bluhm met with members of the community to sign a community benefits agreement that would allot funds back into the surrounding neighborhoods of Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Kensington and Port Richmond.
The agreement plan calls for funds to be awarded annually to the Penn Treaty Special Services District, a committee that decides which community groups are to be given money. Each group must apply through the SSD’s website and thoroughly explain what they plan to do with the funds.
“In 2009 we first funded the Special Services District, so that was like a full year before we opened,” Wendy Hamilton, the general manager of SugarHouse Casino, said. “We funded it with $175,000 and then this past October, one month after we were open, we gave an additional $500,000.”
Although it has been two months since the much-anticipated opening, the casino is already starting to make an impact on the community. Over the Thanksgiving holiday SugarHouse donated 250 turkeys to organizations that help needy families and support local community efforts and has plans to make even more of an impact during the Christmas season.
Joe Rafter, a resident and small business-owner in Northern Liberties, is currently the chairman of the SSD and swears by the work the district does. Rafter helped deliver some of the turkey donations to Saint Peter the Apostle School and Towey Playground.
“To date we have distributed funds to approximately 30 different groups and very needy groups,” Rafter said. “We’ve also helped over 20 percent of the workforce at SugarHouse who come from the SSD [neighborhoods] which includes all of Northern Liberties, Fishtown and parts of Kensington and Port Richmond. We are pretty proud to say that we’ve got 20 percent of the employment.”
The SSD was formed out of a group called Fishtown Action (FACT), a pro-casino group with over 600 members from Fishtown and other surrounding neighborhoods. FACT is deeply rooted in the Fishtown community. Maggie O’Brien is the current president of FACT and the founder of the Fishtown Neighbors Association. She decided to create FACT because of the positivity she saw in having the casino in her neighborhood.
“We thought wow [the casino] would be great to be able to give the veterans, to be able to give the Fishtown Athletic Association money,” O’Brien said. “That they could get some grant money and be able to start making improvements to the community. When we sat down with [SugarHouse] we started thinking what else can they do. They’re going to be here and our neighborhood’s the host, what else can they do in this community. Besides the money and in addition to the money we asked that they try and use as many local businesses [as possible] when they have to make purchases.”
“The SugarHouse location has not employed anyone since 1978 I believe, and if I’m off I’m not off by much,” added Rafter. “There’s now 1,000 employees, 20 percent from the SSD and they utilize local businesses for vending. I can tell you in any economy as a business owner you appreciate the business but in this economy it is absolutely like salvation.”
SugarHouse Casino has been open for over 90 days, but according to Mike Gross, a spokesperson from the casino, it has exceeded all expectations. The next step for the SSD and FACT is to reach the next phase of the agreement, which will enact a clause requiring the casino to give one million dollars annually rather than $500,000. Perhaps the most important clause in the CBA is that the contract is good for 15 years and then SugarHouse must renegotiate new terms with the community.
Hamilton knows that the money SugarHouse donates is not going to make everyone appreciate the presence in the community, but she feels that the donations are necessary if they are going to be a part of Fishtown and the other neighborhoods that surround the casino.
“There are folks out there who don’t support us and some of them never will,” Hamilton said. “But it doesn’t change who we are. We know that we are here and that we are a positive add to the community.”
O’Brien and Rafter believe that the support that SugarHouse, the SSD and FACT provide to the community is having a major impact. O’Brien believes that many people have changed how they look at the casino in the short time since it has opened.
“The funny thing is, I’ve been down only to two SSD meetings where people were coming in requesting money,” O’ Brien said. “The two that I was at, I happened to notice that people who were anti-casino were there at the meeting asking for money, for their organizations. And those organizations are a part of our community too, so the SSD graciously granted them money. Which is really a credit to them after some of these groups were so anti-casino. I guess they’ve changed their minds.”
For another view of SugarHouse, view this story.