Pennsylvania lawmakers had voted to approve casinos. But celebrities were going to bring them to Philadelphia.
They tried to, at least. In the fall of 2005, multiple celebs testified before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis sent in video messages supporting casino bids. Robert Johnson, billionaire founder of BET, said Michael Jordan would be a partner in the proposed Pinnacle casino.
But the biggest celebrity who showed up in person was current Republican presidential contender Donald Trump. He had an entourage with him, too: Trump was joined by Quincy Jones, former 76ers president Pat Croce and Boyz II Men member Nathan Morris. They were all there to pitch the TrumpStreet Casino.
Trump was an outlier in his bid for a Philly casino. Every other proposed location — including the one that was actually built, SugarHouse — was on the waterfront. This is odd, of course, as gambling halls have traditionally been places that box their customers in. (Indeed, SugarHouse doesn’t have much of a waterfront presence currently.) But Trump wanted to build a casino at the former Budd Company plant in Nicetown.
Originally, Steve Wynn and Ron Rubin wanted to build a casino at the old Budd site. But the plan never materialized; Pennsylvania casinos are taxed at a whopping 55 percent. Trump’s team added Croce, then not long removed from the 2000-01 Sixers season, and ’90s music stalwarts Boyz II Men from another casino plan that fell through, on City Avenue. The TrumpStreet Casino was born. The company signed a lease option in 2005 for the Budd site.
When Maureen Tkacik wrote about Trump’s burgeoning Philly empire in Philadelphia magazine in May 2006, Trump had yet to visit the site of the casino. (Trump had been told by Croce that it was a good location, and that was enough. Tkacik quoted Trump biographer Gwenda Blair, who called him a “virtual developer.”) But the company tried to win over the community. The TrumpStreet casino started giving away grants to community organizations. It offered to buy the Randolph Skills Center from the Philadelphia School District and pay for a $17.5 million “state of the art” learning center to replace it. It drafted a Community Benefits Agreement that would pay $2 million into a foundation up front and guaranteed $500,000 a year. Per a 2008 dissertation by Lisa Calvano, TrumpStreet offered a new floor for a gym, sponsored youth essay competitions, funded porch cleanups on an African-American street in East Falls and sponsored block cleanups. It promised to try to provide 75 percent of the 900-plus jobs to community residents, and 90 percent to Philly residents.
A PowerPoint presentation TrumpStreet delivered to the Gaming Control Board says a board member from Tioga United, a community organization, stumped for Trump. The president of the East Falls Community Council testified against it.”If the Commission were to allow TrumpStreet to open as planned, it would cause a drastic, damaging and irrevocable change in the community,” Sharon Jaffe said, arguing that the casino was in the boundaries of East Falls. (A Trump PR consultant posted on the Young Philly Politics blog that “East Falls has never claimed the Budd Site until this occurred.”)
There were sixty pages of anti-gambling testimony from residents. Paul Vallas, then head of the school district, even opposed the Trump plan since he didn’t feel $17.5 million was enough for the school property. The Multi-Community Alliance, a coalition of community groups from the surrounding areas, said Trump’s actions after initial conversations showed “a weakness of character and integrity.” Trump’s team had competing witnesses.
TrumpStreet pitched itself to the Gaming Control Board as a way to maximize casino revenue in Philadelphia. According to stats presented by Trump Entertainment, 2.2 million more people would visit Philly casinos if one were on the waterfront and the other was at the Budd site. This would mean $110 million more in tax revenue over just two years, according to the company’s presentation. The Philadelphia Gaming Advisory task force agreed, actually: “Gaming revenue was maximized by locating one casino near the interchange of I-76 and Route 1 and one casino on the Delaware River waterfront or in Center City.”
Inga Saffron liked the design, too. “Knowing that its site may be hard to find, the architects designed a sexy, torquing light tower that evokes the area’s industrial past,” she wrote in the Inquirer. “The architects have injected glamour and history on the ground level, with references to Budd’s stylish moderne locomotives and car fins. The proposal even comes with better-than-average amenities, including a three-screen movie theater and a farmers’ market.” She added that the TrumpStreet design consisted of “real buildings that promise to add something to Philadelphia.”
In the end, Trump’s connections to Atlantic City helped do in his bid for a casino. The tax rate there is just 9.25 percent, and the Board feared he would use TrumpStreet to lure customers to his Atlantic City properties. The dream of a Boyz II Men and Mummers-themed bar was dead. Trump sued, saying he was unfairly denied a gambling license.
“Pennsylvania is a little too political of a state for me,” Trump said in 2008. It sounds like you have to be a friend of the governor to get a casino.”
Follow @dhm on Twitter.