For six years, Casino-Free Philadelphia’s mission has been to stop casinos from coming to Philadelphia, bankrupt any that do and reclaim local neighborhoods. The activist group’s No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition formed when there were rumors that Foxwoods Casino would open up across the street from its office on Seventh and Market streets. Since then about 50 members from community groups like Asian Americans United and Arch Street Methodist Church have joined Casino-Free Philadelphia in its efforts.
One casino the coalition hopes to bankrupt is SugarHouse Casino, the newly opened casino on Delaware Avenue in Fishtown.
Back in the fall of 2009, members of Casino-Free Philadelphia congregated on the grounds of SugarHouse Casino as a private groundbreaking ceremony took place. Above the protesters an airplane banner flew overhead reading, “Poverty. Crime. Addiction…Jackpot.”
Despite the opposition from groups like Casino-Free Philadelphia, SugarHouse Casino worked with various community groups to create a community benefits agreement that will allot $500,000 back into the community through the Penn Treaty Special Services District. While staff at SugarHouse Casino see this as a tremendous act of giving longtime member of Casino-Free Philadelphia, Dan Hajdo, believes it to “hide what they are really trying to do.”
“What they give out is a small percentage of SugarHouse’s marketing and PR budget,” Hadjo said. “SugarHouse is basically greasing the skids, buying their way into the community the way they bought their way into the legislature. But it would be nicer if they were giving that money to say, addiction services.”
Hajdo said that SugarHouse is hurting the neighborhood rather than doing anything to help out Fishtown or Philadephia.
“According to the mayor’s estimates, 10,000 of our citizens are problem gamblers or pathological gamblers,” he continued. “Twenty percent of them will attempt suicide. And what is SugarHouse doing to help that? They’re certainly not lending help. As a matter of fact they are probably giving them a comp to get them back into the casino.”
The landscape of Casino-Free Philadelphia’s mission has now changed since SugarHouse’s opening. They are working vigorously in their Reclaim the Waterfront Campaign, determined to help eliminate what they call the “predatory tactics” of the SugarHouse Casino.
The group hosts Casino Town Watches to document and expose the “predatory tactics” used by SugarHouse. These tactics include, compensations through their Rush Rewards membership, credit for slots, free alcohol, 24-hour access and not offering enough addiction services to help people avoid gambling addiction. Casino-Free believes that these tactics help the casino to lure in problem gamblers.
“Because the city and the casinos refuse to take the action necessary we will be here as Casino Town Watch documenting the impacts of this casino bringing treatment and rehabilitation services to people that need it, protecting our communities and going after SugarHouse’s bottom line until SugarHouse and Foxwoods are out of this city forever,” Casino-Free member Zach Herschman said at the opening of SugarHouse Casino on September 23rd.
Their Reclaim the Waterfront campaign is striving to make the waterfront a safe place for families to raise their kids.
“We are staging this alternative vision for what the waterfront can be for families in Philadelphia,” Rev. Robin Hynicka from Arch Street United Methodist said at the opening. “We want to turn the waterfront into family friendly entertainment as opposed to casino gambling, slots and table games, that only prey on people and bring misery to families.”
Hajdo agrees with the need for the town watches because he, along with the 3,000 people supporting Casino-Free Philadelphia, believes that many people are unable to protect themselves against the casino.
“The casino relies on addiction to make profits so they are not going to deal with any problems,” Hajdo said. “If they did they would shut down. So we are going to deal with this problem and shut them down. At SugarHouse you can get Rush Rewards. They get all your information, they get your license and they track how often you’re playing and how fast you’re playing. How long you’re there so they know all these things. And then if you’re not there very long and you don’t come back they say ‘OK, were going to give you $50 dollars of free play, come on back.’”
Casino-Free Philadelphia recognizes that its job to protect the community from casinos is never done. It is currently opposing the opening of a Foxwoods Casino on Columbus Avenue in South Philadelphia. The group succeeded in rallying to get Foxwood’s license revoked—a decision will be levied by Dec. 16 about what to do about Foxwoods.
While it looks as though they may succeed against Foxwoods, Casino-Free Philadelphia refuses to allow SugarHouse Casino to feel comfortable after its two-month opening. Hajdo claimed the group still has plenty of work to do until they reach their ultimate goal of shutting the casino down.
“Once we can shut down the predatory tactics of the casino we think SugarHouse will leave on their own,” he said. “Or they will go bankrupt and then leave. With the new legislature coming in and a new governor on the way we think we can get this done.”
For another side of the story take a look at the SugarHouse contributions to the community here.