A shipboard casino for Philadelphia

The lady or the casinos? Why not choose both?

Casino gambling in Philadelphia seems inevitable. State and local politicians are in the pockets of the predatory gambling industry. Philadelphia's Quaker Fathers couldn't suppress horseracing and gambling (why do you think Race Street is called Race Street?) and neither, I suspect, can today's well-intentioned coalition of concerned private citizens. Instead of fighting the inescapable, their energies might be better channeled toward Friendly persuasion— because the developers and their citizen critics needn't be enemies.

That thought occurred to me recently when the Inquirer's architectural critic Inga Saffron wrote an appeal to save the S.S. United States, now beautifully berthed on Columbus Boulevard (just across from Ikea"“ a wonderful visual). Saffron notes that the ship's former owner, Edward A. Cantor, once wanted to convert it into a hotel and then a waterfront casino. But this once-proud liner has sat there forlornly since the mid-'90s. Now its Hong-Kong based owner, Star Cruises, has put it up for sale.

Lenfest's drop in the bucket

The ship will likely go to China for scrap unless the advocacy group, S.S. United States Conservancy, is able to mount a campaign sufficiently powerful to save it. The group has attracted at least one significant pledge of $300,000 from the Cable TV mogul H.F. Gerry Lenfest, but that's a mere drop in the bucket for a property that's probably worth $20 million, even stripped down.

On the other hand, $20 million is a mere fraction of the $150 million the Chicago real estate billionaire Neil Bluhm proposes to spend on his Sugarhouse casino in Philadelphia. Why not spend that $20 million to buy the S.S. U.S. and give the great old liner a beauty makeover?

An ideal location

The ship's current location is ideal for casino traffic: near the Walt Whitman Bridge but not too close to homes, churches or schools. Bluhm's remaining funds could be used to refurbish the ship. It doesn't need to be made seaworthy, which Saffron reports would cost $250 million. Just restore some of the public spaces for gambling, dining and shopping, and convert some of the staterooms for hotel rooms. Foxwoods and Sugarhouse could pool their resources and flip a coin for the ship's fore and aft locations.

Think about walking up the gangplank with your best girl or guy on your arm on one of Philadelphia's lovely evenings, dining on the deck at one of a dozen restaurants, checking out the gaming tables at either casino, taking in a show, then buying a bauble for your date at one of the many shops and galleries open until 2am. Cap off the evening with a stroll aft to watch the twinkling tugboats glide by and steal a kiss under the stars.

New cachet for Philadelphia

This sort of glamorous marketing and location would win friends and supporters. Not only would it save an important landmark ship, but it would also bring Philadelphia the cachet that Los Angeles enjoys with the Queen Mary berthed in Long Beach, California. Thousands of tourists from around the world flock there each year. "¨"¨

Marketing casinos as oases of glamour and glitz (which they used to be) might discourage the poor and the elderly from coming to lose their money, and instead encourage more customers who can afford to lose. The last time my husband and I went to Atlantic City, I shuddered at the site of the poor, toothless, raggedy-shirted, walker-pushing, flip-flop-wearing, vacant-eyed, tense and empty-pocketed people we saw in the casinos and on the boardwalk.

The Arizona example

If you visited Casino Arizona in Mesa, you would see an amazingly beautiful casino on the Pima-Maricopa reservation (next door to Scottsdale) with a million-dollar Native American art exhibit, curated by the former Smithsonian curator, Aleta Ringlero, as well as art-filled lounges and restaurants that take your breath away and make you really want to spend time there.

Casino Arizona's visitors are well dressed and convivial. Yes, some hard-core losers can be found sitting at the slots, but it's a very different atmosphere from what Philadelphia will get with Sugarhouse's deadening "black box" designs. When friends visit us in our Phoenix home, we make that casino a destination stop. Even if we don't gamble, at least we stop there for dinner in Cholla, one of Arizona's leading restaurants.

What if the conservancy approached Bluhm and his Foxwoods counterparts and offered to form a consortium with them to refurbish and reopen the ship as a tourist destination with casinos? The casino operators can model their Philadelphia ventures after Casino Arizona— only instead of building a jewel in the desert, polish the jewel that already sits on our waterfront. In effect they face a choice: They can make heroes of themselves to Philadelphians, or make enemies of us and miss the boat.♦

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