Ron Rubin Was Here

He’s left a bigger mark on Philly than anyone this side of Willard Rouse, and now, at 77, he wants to put a casino in Strawbridge’s. The key to being Ron Rubin? Patience, and knowing how deals here really get done

By focusing on the deals, and by never, as he puts it, “falling in love with the bricks.” Building in a large city is a calculating game because it’s so difficult. Thriving for 50 years — it’s a testament not only to Rubin fostering relationships with mayors and navigating financial markets and having extraordinary patience in the face of roadblocks, but also to his singular focus, his ability to keep right on doing what he needs to do. To build. Bigger.

And there may be no better example of Rubin’s canniness and focus than his casino. The project’s move to Market East isn’t just a proverbial win-win, but a win-win-win: It removes the political obstacles to the casino being built; it will fill vacant space in the Rubin-owned Strawbridge’s building; and it will revitalize a neighborhood where the dominant landlord is none other than Ron Rubin.

A good deal for him? Absolutely. The question, of course, is whether it’s nearly as good a deal for the rest of us.

REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT isn’t a game for lightweights, so I meet with Rubin with some trepidation. He’s powerful, and shuns the media. On the other hand, those who know him universally like Rubin, saying what a good, honest, understated guy “Ronnie” is.

Sitting across from him in a small conference room in his Bellevue offices, I get the first guy — the scary one. Rubin is small and wiry and very bald. He’s wearing a blue sweater and wire-rim glasses. He’s 77. He could be a great-grandfather.

But Rubin stares at me, and keeps staring, with a much younger intensity — in fact, he doesn’t stop staring for a good 10 or 15 minutes, through simple questions about his refurbishment of the Bellevue back in the late ’70s. It’s his pride and joy, and no wonder; he saved the grand old hotel from the wrecking ball after Legionnaires’ disease killed 29 conventioneers. It nearly crippled his company, but it’s a wonderful gift to the city — the only time in his career when his love for the bricks overrode his business sense — and I tell him that.

“Listen, this is where I was born, and raised, and I made my living here,” Rubin says in his blunt, unhurried way, “and my father and mother, both of whom were immigrants, they came here and raised their family. This city is very important to us. The company is located here. We could have relocated to the suburbs and saved tax money, done things of that sort. This is important.”

Rubin’s still staring. His gift as a deal-maker is reading others, their vulnerabilities and strengths; as he’s done deals with tens of millions of dollars at stake, he has always played his cards close to the vest and said as little as possible. Presumably, he doesn’t stare quite so adamantly across negotiating tables. Now, though, he’s being asked to say a lot — and that’s what the stare is about: to figure out exactly what I’m trying to take from him.