Philadelphians campaign for a casino-free city, 2006-2010


Seeking extra tax revenue to bolster a struggling state budget, the United States state of Pennsylvania passed a bill in 2004 authorizing casinos in the state. The bill, Act 71, legalized the construction of 15 new casinos in the state, two of which would be chosen from among five proposals in the city of Philadelphia. The location, size, management, and other details remained open-ended. As the permitting process began, Philadelphia community members voiced concern to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) about the intrusion of casinos into their neighborhoods. On June 1, 2006, a new organization, Casino-Free Philadelphia, was formed to coordinate anti-casino efforts in various areas of the city.

Casino-Free Philadelphia began with a demonstration on June 1, attended by members of the constituent neighborhood organizations. It asked for greater transparency in the casino permitting process, and for the PGCB public comment to be extended. The PGCB refused to extend the comment period, which ended the next day, but nearly 3,000 anti-casino comments were submitted nevertheless. Casino-Free’s next action was to attend a PGCB public hearing in Harrisburg, the state capital, on June 28. Activists invoked Pennsylvania’s “Sunshine Act”—a transparency law—in an appeal to the board for greater transparency. Rather than respond to these complaints, the PGCB cancelled the remainder of its meeting, and then repeatedly denied requests for more information that activists and allies submitted throughout the summer and fall. Casino-Free Philadelphia also organized an effort to write to State Senator Vincent Fumo, who was in charge of legislation that would take away Philadelphia’s right to create zoning codes for casinos. On October 19, Fumo announced that he would amend the legislation to preserve zoning rights for the city.

On October 30, Casino-Free Philadelphia announced a new initiative, which it called “Operation Transparency.” As with many subsequent Casino-Free activities, Operation Transparency was very clearly messaged for the media, in a manner designed to create anticipation and press coverage in advance of any actual demonstrations or actions. Activists sent an “ultimatum” to PGCB chairman Tad Decker and Governor Ed Rendell that demanded the release of documents pertaining to projected casino costs and revenues, as well as site designs for the five proposals. The activists vowed to conduct a nonviolent “citizens’ document search” of the PGCB offices in Harrisburg if the documents were not released by December 1. In response, a PGCB spokesperson declared that the Board could not release the requested documents, because they included proprietary information from the casino developers.

After the December 1 deadline passed, Casino-Free Philadelphia conducted the citizens’ document search as promised. On December 11, about fifty demonstrators converged on the PGCB office chanting anti-casino slogans. Fourteen of the protestors sought to enter the elevator to search for the documents, but were barred from the elevators by police. Police asked everybody present to leave, and when the fourteen refused to do so, police arrested them. The citizens’ document search received considerable press coverage, and drew attention to the obscurity of the PGCB. In the next several years, this led to a series of investigative reports detailing benefits received by Board members, and legislation aimed at reducing corruption on the Board.

This attention did not come soon enough, however, to prevent the PGCB from granting permits to two casinos on the Delaware River waterfront, called SugarHouse and Foxwoods, on December 21. In response, Casino-Free Philadelphia launched a new initiative, called “No Way Without Our Say,” designed to keep casinos 1,500 feet away from residential communities, schools, playgrounds, and places of worship. If they were to succeed in doing so, it would severely limit the sites available to casino developers. By mid-February, the activists collected far more than the 20,000 signatures necessary to change the City Charter, totaling 27,000. When casino interests appealed, a judge threw out the petitions without examining them, alleging that fraudulent petitioning processes invalidated all but 7,000 signatures. Casino-Free’s leaders disputed allegations of forging signatures, and accused the judge of bowing to casino interests.

Soon after this setback, organizers commissioned a poll that showed high support for community input in casino permitting and the 1,500-foot buffer zone. On March 15, they took the question of the 1,500-foot buffer to the Philadelphia City Council, which voted unanimously to place the question on the ballot for an upcoming election. Mayor John Street vetoed the Council resolution, but the veto was overridden by another unanimous vote. Again, casino developers challenged the decision by suing City Council. Less than one month before the May 15 election day, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an injunction blocking the referendum from taking place. The Court did not provide any justification for its ruling.

Its efforts to enact the 1,500-foot buffer having been overridden twice by courts, Casino-Free Philadelphia announced that voters would nevertheless have the opportunity to vote on the ban. In its “Ballot Box Philadelphia” initiative, Casino-Free members set up outside every polling place in Philadelphia on election day with a large ballot box and the question, “Should casinos be allowed within 1,500 feet of residential communities, schools, playgrounds, or places of worship?” Approximately 60% of voters participated in the parallel vote, and 95% of those voted to enact a buffer zone. Though this vote was ultimately symbolic, and without legal effect, it led State Senator Fumo to introduce a similar bill in the State Senate, even though he admitted it had “no chance” of passing.

At this point, organizers had succeeded in shifting the debate around casinos in the city. Newspaper coverage, formerly pro-casino development, now included discussion of the negative aspects of casinos. Casino development was also a major issue in the 2007 mayoral campaign. Throughout the summer and fall of 2007, stalling tactics and procedural hurdles by City Council prevented the two casino plans from proceeding. Finally, on December 3, the state Supreme Court again ruled on the side of casino developers, going above the Council’s head and granting approval to the SugarHouse development plan. Fearing that ground would be broken on the SugarHouse site soon, Casino-Free Philadelphia held an “emergency action training” to plan for a future site occupation.

This emergency training turned out to be less urgent than expected; still mired in legal challenges from groups and individuals, SugarHouse did not begin construction. Meanwhile, Casino-Free organizers started a new initiative on February 27, 2008, called “Operation Hidden Costs.” To kick off this operation, activists delivered calculators to Governor Ed Rendell’s office at the Bellevue in Philadelphia to “help him do simple math” about the true costs of casinos. In mid-March, Casino-Free hosted a “Hidden Costs Egg Hunt” to again emphasize that Rendell and the PGCB had not adequately acknowledged casinos’ negative economic and social impacts. On April 8, the activists released a cost/benefit analysis that purported to show that the net economic losses from casino development would outweigh the gains. They invited Governor Rendell to discuss the findings two days later, on April 10. When Rendell closed his office rather than attend, Casino-Free held a “debate-in” in the lobby of his office building to talk about the costs of casinos, despite the governor’s absence.

Anti-casino organizers wanted to send the message that they were willing to risk arrest at the casino sites themselves, should construction begin. To send this message, they held a “practice site reclamation” at the proposed location of Foxwoods on August 9. This was both a play for media attention, which was received, but also an actual direct action training for campaign members less experienced in direct action tactics.

One month later, on September 10, Foxwoods developers announced their intention to build their casino in downtown Philadelphia rather than on the waterfront. This change was met with praise by Rendell, but also Mayor Michael Nutter, who had previously expressed concerns about the waterfront proposal. Casino-Free Philadelphia organizers started working with residents of Chinatown, located near the newly proposed site. On October 9, hundreds of residents packed a town hall meeting with City Councilman Frank DiCicco. Less than a month later, 600-1,000 people (depending on source) marched from Chinatown to a public hearing on casinos at City Hall. On November 12, organizers delivered 23,000 signatures to Mayor Nutter, asking for a “serious process of study” on the effects of the Foxwoods relocation plan.

On January 27, 2009, Casino-Free Philadelphia issued its “Declaration of Independence from Casinos.” This initiative demanded that local elected politicians take a stand for or against casino development, and also provided the impetus for a series of town hall meetings in different areas of the city. This also included a letter-writing campaign to the PGCB, asking them not to issue a “blank check for casinos.” On February 18, a new coalition, the “No Casino in the Heart of the City Coalition” was formed to stop the downtown Foxwoods project. The new coalition included a large number of religious groups, as well as local community members.

On April 8, the PGCB held a hearing in Harrisburg to investigate why SugarHouse and Foxwoods hadn’t opened yet, despite having been granted gaming licenses by the board (by this point, both projects were already years behind schedule). Eighty activists came from Philadelphia to explain that they, the activists, were the reason why the casinos hadn’t opened yet.

As part of its “Declaration of Independence from Casinos” initiative, Casino-Free Philadelphia held an action at a Harrah’s casino in neighboring Chester, Pennsylvania, on June 6. Dubbed “Beat the House” by organizers, the action consisted of activists entering the casino, whereupon some milled around and spoke with patrons and employees about the predatory nature of casinos. Others sat down at slot machines and entered money, but did not press “spin” to play the games. Casino security told activists that the game was not meant to be “played” that way, and escorted all the activists out of the building.

Meanwhile, SugarHouse was still mired in legal challenges, some of them from individuals claiming that the casinos had infringed on their rights to representation, and had not yet broken ground. However, once developers scaled down their plans to one-third of its original size, and made improvements to the traffic flow around the site, Mayor Nutter and Councilman DiCicco decided to support the project, after years of obstruction. This expedited the development process. Seeing that construction would begin soon, 14 Casino-Free activists briefly blockaded the SugarHouse site on September 29, 2009, preventing construction workers from entering the grounds. All 14 protestors were arrested and given charges, all of which were eventually dropped. On October 8, while SugarHouse developers, Nutter, DiCicco and others held a private groundbreaking ceremony, over 100 protesters chanted outside the fences, often drowning out the ceremony. Organizers arranged for an airplane to fly overhead, towing a banner that read, “Poverty, Crime, Addiction…Jackpot.”

Also around this time period, the PGCB instructed Foxwoods developers to resume planning at their original waterfront location, marking the success of organizing efforts to keep Foxwoods out of downtown. In the next year, Foxwoods suffered the sudden withdrawal of its main funder, and then sought to enter into a deal with Harrah’s to provide funding before ultimately failing. On December 18, 2010, the PGCB, after providing many extensions, finally revoked Foxwoods’ gaming license, marking the probable death of the project.

In 2010, even before the official demise of the Foxwoods project, Casino-Free Philadelphia began to transition into a campaign to shut down the SugarHouse casino. When SugarHouse opened on September 20, Casino-Free held a “Memorial Service for Our City” to emphasize the negative effects the casino would have on the city. It also held “Casino Town Watches” to monitor safety at SugarHouse. The efforts to shut down this casino are unresolved, as of the writing of this case study, and should eventually be the subject of another case study, whether successful or not.

As for the efforts of Casino-Free Philadelphia to keep casinos out of Philadelphia in the first place, they were quite successful—stopping one casino entirely, and reducing another to one-third of its originally proposed size, and in the process costing casino developers dozens of millions of dollars in legal and procedural fees.