Casino operators favor adding table games in Pa.

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HARRISBURG -- Yes to table games at state casinos, but no to video poker machines in thousands of bars and clubs statewide.

That was the view today of Timothy Wilmott, president of Penn National Gaming Inc., which runs a racetrack/casino 20 miles northeast of here plus several other casinos in other states.

Two other casino executives -- from the Pittsburgh area -- agreed about bringing table games to Pennsylvania casinos but wouldn't comment on Gov. Ed Rendell's controversial plan to allow 80,000 or so video poker machines in bars and taverns across the state.

Ed Fasulo, president of the Rivers Casino, which will open in Pittsburgh in August, and Mike Graninger, general manager of The Meadows, which will open its enlarged, permanent casino in April, said table games would increase employment and the state's income tax base.

But they tactfully sidestepped commenting on Mr. Rendell's idea for video poker to raise tuition relief for college students.

All three casino executives spoke today at Spectrum Gaming Group's annual Pennsylvania Gaming Congress and Mid-Atlantic Racing Forum here.

Mr. Graninger said that adding 40 table games, such as poker and blackjack, to The Meadows would increase the payroll by 700 jobs and $28 million. There are now 800 jobs with slot machines.

Table games "would make us a full-service casino," he said.

Mr. Wilmott said "absolutely not" when asked if thousands of video poker machines should be installed in bars around the state. That is Mr. Rendell's idea for raising up to $550 million a year in additional funds for tuition relief for Pennsylvania college students.

"Not all the slots operations are even running yet," Mr. Wilmott said, referring to the fact that only seven of the 14 slots venues authorized by a 2004 law are in operation.

Besides the Rivers Casino, another new facility, the Sands Bethworks casino in Bethlehem, will open this summer. The Penn National Hollywood casino, which Mr. Wilmott runs, opened in February 2008.

Video poker in bars "is far too advanced a concept to introduce" now, Mr. Wilmott said. "We need to get the existing operations up and running and fulfill the original intent of the legislation. We should introduce table games first at casinos."

Mr. Rendell considers table games an expansion of legalized gaming in Pennsylvania, but he doesn't see video poker in bars the same way. He said that many bars operate illegal gambling devices now, with no revenue coming to the state. He would replace them with legal machines that pay taxes to the state.

Mr. Fasulo said that if the state does legalize table games -- as House Democratic Whip Bill DeWeese of Waynesburg wants to do -- the tax rate should be no higher than 20-22 percent, which is much lower than the current 55 percent tax rate on revenue from slot machines.

Because table games call for more personnel, labor costs are much higher and a casino can't make money if the tax rate is more than 22 percent, he said.

Mr. Wilmott, in an address to gaming executives and state regulators, said the casino industry currently "is in a crisis" because of the recession and people not betting as much as they did a year or two ago. Casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are seeing a significant drop in their revenue compared to a year ago, he said.

But western Pennsylvania is a bright spot for the industry, said Mr. Graninger and Mr. Fasulo. Mr. Graninger said The Meadows has seen a steady, month-over-month growth in the amount wagered by bettors since it opened in June 2007.

"The Meadows has proven there is a substantial market for gamers in western Pennsylvania," he said. "The (gaming) market in western Pennsylvania is strong. Time will tell, but we are bullish. We see nothing but a rosy condition for our market.''

Mr. Fasulo played a video of the new Rivers Casino for the audience, complete with a rock-and-roll sound track of "Get Ready Cuz Here I Come.''

He showed pictures of the sleek glass-and-metallic exterior of the casino, with a 1,200-seat outdoor amphitheater, and several bars and restaurant inside. The casino will open on the North Shore in August.

He said that while traffic will be an issue on Steelers game days, he's looking forward to "attracting some of those 70,000 fans to the casino on Sundays."

He said the casino will open with 3,000 slots with a capacity to expand to the legal limit of 5,000 if customers demand it.

Jim Simms, president of Wheeling Island casino and racetrack in West Virginia, admitted he's not getting as many Pennsylvania gamblers since The Meadows has opened but said he's working hard to stay competitive. One big advantage he has is table games, which West Virginia recently permitted at their 12-year-old casinos.

Mr. Simms said he also is watching the situation in Ohio carefully, where efforts to legalize slots are continuing.



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