Hurdles Ahead for South Philly Turf Club Move to Chickie’s and Pete’s

Posted on February 10, 2021 - Last Updated on February 15, 2021

The issue of moving the Turf Club OTB wagering operations from 7th and Packer in South Philly to a nearby Chickie’s and Pete’s restaurant at 15th and Packer remains unresolved.

Hours of complicated and contradictory testimony before the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment on Wednesday ended with no decision.

A special meeting at 10 a.m. on March 9 might resolve the issue.

There was a suggestion that the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office or the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board input be sought before the meeting.

Parx OTB Turf Club wants to be in a nearby restaurant

At issue is a zoning approval to move both horse racing operations and a sportsbook at Parx’s current 36,000-square-foot satellite betting operation, also known as South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook, to a 2,607-square-foot space carved out of a portion of the popular restaurant and sports bar.

The Turf Club, an off-track betting (OTB) operation, is struggling due to virus restrictions, competition from the neighboring and newly opened Live! Casino Philadelphia, and an aging clientele among pari-mutuel gamblers.

Its hope is that moving the operations would help bring in younger gamblers more attracted to sports betting than the ponies.

An extended partnership with other OTBs

Ultimately, Parx and the restaurant chain want to relocate additional OTB operations to other Chickie’s and Pete’s.

In fact, three OTB sites tied to Parx Casino and Racing have quietly sought permission to relocate the licenses of sites in:

  • South Philly (Turf Club)
  • Upper Darby in Delaware County
  • Montgomery County (The Oaks)

The proposed new sites are owned by Pete Ciarrocchi, the owner of Chickie’s and Pete’s, a chain with 17 locations.

Petitions have sought to limit public input on proposed OTB moves

Petitions seeking the location changes expressly asked the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission to approve the requests “on an expedited basis” and “without requiring a written public comment period or public comment hearing.”

Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the race commission, recently told PlayPennsylvania there was no decision yet on the request. She also said the law is open-ended about allowing for public comment or a hearing in such circumstances.

The race commission’s agenda typically comes out just a few days before a board meeting. The commission’s next public meeting is on Feb. 23.

Additional OTB relocations are likely to follow, a Parx lawyer confirmed recently.

C&P’s has offered horse wagering for several years at a location in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. And it has an outlet in Parx where wagering is allowed.

City zoning regs raise questions about sportsbook

At the Wednesday zoning meeting, there was general agreement that horse betting is an acceptable use at 15th and Packer.

But a fundamental question remained: Does Philly zoning law permit a sportsbook operation at that particular location?

Muddying the issue, the city’s Department of Licensing and Inspections initially classified the plan by the restaurant chain and Parx as a “special exception,” which sets a relatively low bar for zoning approval.

Then objectors led by the Packer Park Civic Association, a group from the neighborhood surrounding the restaurant, said no, that was wrong.

Only a casino can have sports wagering under city zoning standard, according to city lawyer

The civic group argued the city should have responded with a refusal. A refusal would require a variance, a far more stringent approval process. Last week, the city’s Law Department formally agreed that a refusal was warranted.

City lawyer Leonard Reuter went further on Wednesday during the zoning meeting, which was conducted on Zoom.

He pointed to language in the city’s zoning code requiring a location to be licensed as a casino to operate sports gambling.

Paul Boni, the civic group’s lawyer, agreed, while Michael Mattioni, the lawyer for Parx and Chickie’s and Pete’s, disagreed.

That’s when Zoning Board lawyer Sharon Suleta brought up holding a special meeting, which the board accepted.

Barbara Capozzi, president of the civic association, said after the meeting that a refusal decision by the city should stand. If so, zoning law requires proving a hardship to win a variance.

Then she quipped, “Let it be said that the name ‘Pete Ciarrocchi’ and ‘hardship’ can never be in the same sentence. And God bless his business skills for that!”

Lead image via Dreamstime

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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