Located in the heart of metropolitan Philadelphia along the Delaware River, the SugarHouse Casino takes its name from the previous occupant of the property, the Jack Frost Sugar refinery.
SugarHouse Casino project was awarded a gaming license by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in 2006, but it would take several years before construction began on the Philadelphia.
After several delays, which eventually led to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court needed to rule on the case, Phase 1 construction of the SugarHouse casino began in 2008, and the casino opened its doors on September 23, 2010.
SugarHouse Casino is owned by SugarHouse HSP Gaming, LP, but the day-to-day operations of the facility are handled by Rush Street Gaming. Rush Street owns and operates a number of casinos across the U.S., including Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. Rush Street is also heavily involved in the iGaming industry, via their subsidiary, Rush Street Interactive.
One of the first casinos in Pennsylvania history
When William Penn arrived in 1682 to claim the land given to him by King Charles II as repayment of a debt owed his father, he envisaged a beautiful waterfront for his city of Philadelphia — something similar to the sylvan embankment of the Thames River in London. But this was not to be. Instead, the area quickly became a scene of great commercial activity, stuffed with bustling wharves, warehouses, and boisterous taverns.
In the 1960s when Interstate-95 was carved along the Delaware River it severed the city from its historic waterfront.
Ever since, city officials have wrestled with how to reclaim and develop Philadelphia’s most potentially valuable resource. A seaport museum has been added, tall ships moored in the docks, entertainment complexes opened – all with varying levels of excitement and impact.
In 2006 it became gambling’s turn to take a crack at re-vitalizing the Philadelphia waterfront.
SugarHouse Casino was awarded one of the five original stand-alone casino licenses as provided by the Pennsylvania Horse Race Development and Gaming Act. The casino name honors one of the great industries that took hold on the edge of the Delaware River. As early as 1760, there were sugarhouses on the Philadelphia waterfront, refining sugar cane, and molasses into cone-shaped loaves.
At its height the sugar industry supported 15 refineries in the city, some of them sprawling complexes of red brick and stone buildings.
One was the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company that was organized in 1883 to refine sugar from Cuban molasses. In 1947 the sugar house was taken over by the National Sugar Refining Company which marketed its sugars under the Jack Frost brand. Sugar refining continued until 1984 when the property, comprised of 18 hulking buildings, was sold.
The complex was demolished in 1997, but the Jack Frost sugarhouse did not go easily. After eight implosion attempts and more than 100 pounds of high explosives, the refinery was still standing. Before a ninth try could be mounted, however, it crumbled without warning.
The ground did not yield easily to development either. The City of Philadelphia and the SugarHouse Casino tussled in court over who had the right to the land, a parcel of 22 acres nestled between the Northern Liberties and Fishtown neighborhoods in the city. It took until 2008 for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to rule in favor of the casino.
Ground was broken for the 1,300,000 square-foot SugarHouse Casino on October 9, 2009. Less than a year and $395 million later the slot machines were humming and the chips were being cashed. Philadelphia became the largest American city with a casino.
Marketing to Philadelphia as well as South Jersey
Of the four casinos carving up the Philadelphia gambling dollar, SugarHouse is the only one located within the city limits. The management caters to its city-based clientele by offering a free trolley service called the Sugar Express. There are two routes, one into Center City and the second into South Philly.
Pick-ups begin at two in the afternoon with departures from the casino lasting until 10:30 during the week and midnight on the weekends. Its location near the Pennsylvania anchor for the Ben Franklin Bridge also enables it to reach into the heart of South Jersey for gamers seeing an alternative to Atlantic City.
As of early 2014 all of the Pennsylvania Gaming Board’s authorized 14 casino licenses have been doled out – save for one. By law Pennsylvania’s last casino will be located in Philadelphia.
SugarHouse executives have more than a passing interest in exactly where that casino will be built. Currently there are three applicants, two backing a location in Center City and a third proposal in South Philadelphia near the city’s professional sports complex.
SugarHouse representatives have testified before the Board that it could lose up to 75 percent of its profits if the Commonwealth’s last casino be constructed in Center City.
Small number, large revenue
SugarHouse a solid revenue generator
As one of the newer gaming establishments in Pennsylvania, the casino at first struggled to gain traction in the ultra-competitive Pennsylvania gaming market. Despite several limitations, most notably the lack of an on-site hotel, SugarHouse has managed to steadily rise towards the top of the heap.
Here is the 2015 casino revenue by operator in Pennsylvania through April:
- Parx – $171,181,594
- Sands Bethlehem – $162,593,150
- The Rivers – $118,178,351
- Harrah’s – $97,639,896
- SugarHouse – $94,031,528
- Mohegan Sun – $86,391,730
- Penn National – $84,833,689
- The Meadows – $79,650,980
- Mount Airy – $57,960,739
- Presque Isle – $41,197,844
- Valley Forge – $37,431,398
- Nemacolin – $11,077,835
When the casino’s current expansion efforts are complete, SugarHouse could conceivably challenge Parx and Sands Bethlehem in the upper tier.
Financed by Bluhm and Rush Street Gaming
Armed with a law degree from Northwestern University, Neil Bluhm began his working life as lawyer but veered off into commercial real estate development. He began investing in casino properties in 1996 and has owned stakes in casinos in Vicksburg, Mississippi and Niagara Falls, Canada.
He pioneered gaming in his native Chicago with the introduction of the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, Illinois. In Pennsylvania, Bluhm, who was listed at #222 on the Forbes magazine list of 400 richest Americans, developed the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh in addition to SugarHouse Casino, which he financed with a small group of local investors. His Rush Street Gaming has created an estimated $1.7 billion in casino assets.
Inside Sugar House
Phase 2 expansion project
SugarHouse is currently in the middle of a $164 million renovation/construction project that will effectively turn SugarHouse Casino into a destination casino with the notable absence of a hotel. Lodging is part of SugarHouse’s Phase 3 plans coming in the near future.
How big of a deal is this expansion for SugarHouse? The casino is pinning quite a bit on it, considering they have a 24-hour “construction cam” of the project on the off-chance someone wants to watch the expansion project in real-time.
Among the changes to the original SugarHouse design are:
- An expansion of gaming floor space from 50,000 square feet to 90,000 square feet
- An attached 7-story parking garage adding 500 spaces
- The addition of a permanent poker room and a high-limit room
- Up to four new restaurant locations
- Increased space and access for the casino’s public “Riverwalk”
- The addition of art galleries
Phase 3 plans include the aforementioned hotel, as well as a new ballroom and other amenities.
License allowances and restrictions
SugarHouse Casino is the owner of a Category 2 gaming license (stand-alone casinos) in Pennsylvania.
As the name suggests, stand-alone casinos are not connected to racetracks like Category 1.
As a Class 2 licensee, SugarHouse is unfettered from the restrictions of Category 1 licensees (racinos) and while they can operate more gaming machines than a Category 3 licensee (resort casinos), they cannot build or operate a hotel on site.
The casino is permitted to house up to 5,000 slot machines and 250 table games.
Slot and table options
Sugarhouse currently boasts 1,600 slot machines and 60 table games, as well as their brand spanking new 24-table poker room, the only legal poker room in Philadelphia.
When Phase 2 is complete, SugarHouse will house roughly 90 table games and could exceed 2,000 slot machines.
SugarHouse poker room
The state-of-the-art poker room SugarHouse unveiled this year is pretty impressive.
The poker room boasts a number of amenities, including built-in charging stations, a mobile app reservation system, and in-room snack bar. It has a hip feel, as well, with poker tables featuring a neon-blue underglow.
The room is on the smaller side at 24 tables, but its novelty and features should make it a popular destination for poker players.
SugarHouse and online gambling
SugarHouse’s parent company, Rush Street Gaming, is heavily involved in online gaming and is likely to be an active player if Pennsylvania regulates internet gambling. Rush Street also owns a second Pennsylvania casino, Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh.
SugarHouse’s Wendy Hamilton told the Senate CERD Committee at a hearing in June of 2015 that SugarHouse (along with its sister casino in Pittsburgh, Rivers Casino) was in favor of online gaming legalization.
SugarHouse’s potential partner for an online gaming platform (if Pennsylvania passes an online gambling bill) is unknown at this time.