Philadelphia Story: From Brotherly Love To Love of Gaming?

IN the not too distant future, you may be able to see the Liberty Bell, eat a Philly cheese steak, and play roulette. Legalized gambling seems to be on its way to Philadelphia.

Backed by Mayor Edward Rendell, riverboat casinos could arrive in 1995. This type of gambling could be the fiscally strapped city's cure or downfall.

``There isn't another industry out there, or on the horizon, that can generate these kinds of jobs and revenues, not to mention the ripple effect on the local economy,'' says Ted Beitchman, chief of staff for the Mayor's Commission on Gambling. ``In the last 20 years, Philadelphia has lost a lot of its population and tax base. We've got to respond to that.''

The City of Brotherly Love is just one of many United States cities to have recently caught gambling fever. ``An epidemic'' is what Marvin Roffman, a casino-industry analyst, calls it. Indeed, the lure is great: It is the nation's fastest-growing industry, with annual revenues of $30 billion. And for Philadelphia - well-situated along the New York-Washington corridor where 18 million people can arrive within three hours - industry estimates are $1 billion in revenues for riverboat gambling.

The national gambling craze dates back to 1987, when a Supreme Court ruling and the passage of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act legalized gambling on Indian reservations, resulting in the opening of dozens of Indian casinos. Since 1989, St. Louis, New Orleans, and 16 states have legalized casinos. Among states, only Hawaii and Utah do not allow gambling.

``[Philadelphia] and other [cities] are experiencing tremendous revenue shortfalls. Politicians across the country seem to view gambling as the panacea to their ills,'' Mr. Roffman said. ``To me, it's not a question of if [gambling comes to Philadelphia], it's simply a question of when.''

But US Rep. Tom Foglietta (D), the first major Philadelphia politician to publicly oppose riverboat gambling, said Sept. 9: ``I don't want to see the cradle of democracy turned into a cradle of decadence. One of the things that makes Philadelphia so special is its rich history and unique style. I am concerned that riverfront gambling on our waterfront risks tarnishing that image forever.''

Mayor Rendell, who took office in 1992, has won praise for saving the city from fiscal collapse by winning major concessions from city unions and balancing the budget. With the completion of a convention center and several cultural projects under way, he has breathed life back into the city ... for now.

``This is a very practical decision,'' Mr. Beitchman said about the push for riverboat gambling in Philadelphia. Probably only five to 10 casinos would receive zoning approval, and for just one area of the city, he added. ``This is the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the US, but we are 38th in tourism. That's got to change,'' he said. He dismissed concerns about organized crime's influence on gambling. ``In Atlantic City and Las Vegas, law enforcement has done a good job of keeping them out.''

The mayor's office estimates that the city could collect from $20 million to $50 million in fees upfront per riverboat for zoning approval, $25 million in gambling-tax revenues, and that 8,000 new jobs could be created.

For now, Rendell and state Sen. Vincent Fumo, a powerful legislator and gambling supporter, are playing down the issue because Gov. Robert Casey (D) would veto gambling legislation. Rendell has reportedly agreed not to push for a gambling bill until Mr. Casey's term expires in January 1995. With Pittsburgh and Erie also pursuing riverboat gambling, the issue could become big during the 1994 gubernatorial race. Supporters say they have the votes in the General Assembly to get a bill passed.

Meanwhile, major casino operators have taken options on Philadelphia riverfront properties where gambling barges would be moored, and nine Atlantic City casinos have announced expansion plans in anticipation of competition from Indian casinos and Philadelphia gambling. Gambling experts estimate that one-third of Atlantic City's gamblers are from Pennsylvania.

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