Getting a Casino License Would Be Very, Very Hard for Bart Blatstein

The developer has power in Philly, but gambling is Harrisburg's game.

Bart Blatstein stirred up lots of buzz last week with his proposal to turn the iconic white tower that houses the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News into a casino and hotel complex. But right now the odds of a casino on North Broad Street are longer than hitting it big on the penny slot machines.

The plan may sound exciting at first blush. But a number of problems surround Blatstein’s plan, including the proximity to schools and churches. Roman Catholic High, the prestigious Masterman, and Benjamin Franklin High School are all nearby. Next door is the Philadelphia School District headquarters.

Studies show that social costs, including crime, bankruptcy and suicide, increase in the areas closest to casinos. So putting a casino near several schools and churches is a major hurdle that will likely face huge community opposition.

But Blatstein has a much bigger problem. He doesn’t have a casino license. And right now he doesn’t have the juice to get one. No license, no casino. Craps.

Anyone who followed the, ah, process that surrounded the awarding of the casino licenses during the Rendell administration knows the decision is not so much about the strength of the project, but rather the strength of your political connections.

To be sure, Blatstein appears well connected with some powerful Democrats in City Hall. But the casino game is played at the state level. Right now that is a Republican-run operation with a House Speaker from Jefferson County and a Senate leader from Delaware County. Governor Corbett, a Republican from Pittsburgh, appointed the current head of the gambling commission, which awards the licenses. Corbett’s chairman is an attorney from Delaware County. In other words, the Philly guys are no longer with the in crowd.

That doesn’t mean Blatstein can’t get wired in. If the past is any prologue, he could assemble a “team” of players with connections to the powers that be in Harrisburg and then hook up with a big-name casino operator. With the right lobbyists, law firms and campaign contributions, Blatstein could transform his casino proposal into a contender. But to paraphrase from the movie Jaws, Bart is gonna need a bigger checkbook.

Even that may not be enough. Casinos don’t like to compete. And much of the gambling market is already carved up. The casinos in and around Philadelphia want to protect their turf, and will likely lobby their lawmaker friends against another casino in the city.

In fact, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi has already expressed concern that another casino may take customers from existing casinos. Not mentioned, of course, is that one of those existing casinos, Harrah’s Chester, is in Pileggi’s district.

Republican John C. Rafferty Jr. plans to introduce a bill that would effectively eliminate the casino license Blatstein needs. A good idea in the sense that fewer gambling outlets equals fewer addicts. But is Rafferty driven by the desire to protect residents from more gambling or to protect the new Valley Forge casino in his district?

State Rep. Curt Schroder wants to auction off the casino license to the highest bidder. (Disclosure: I edit an anti-gambling blog and do not favor any casinos.) If the state is going to issue another license, Schroder’s proposal is the fairest way to do it. That’s why it won’t happen.

It is both sad and telling that gambling is more about inside politics than smart or fair government policy. Casinos are also not about economic development, property tax relief or any other rhetoric pushed by elected officials. In short, promoting gambling is not about doing the right thing. After all, what lawmaker would support an industry that produces very little and only succeeds by stripping wealth from constituents?

The dirty secret is this: In Pennsylvania, the government is essentially the majority partner in the casino business since it receives 55 percent of the slots revenue. As such, the casinos are mainly about generating tax revenue for state coffers and helping politically connected, rich friends get richer.

As it stands, Blatstein may be rich, but he does not have the right political connections. Unless that changes, his plan is dead on arrival.