Nemacolin celebrates casino license

Fayette County resort bested 3 competitors for chance to offer slots, table games

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HARRISBURG -- Joe Hardy was jubilant.

"I feel like jumping up and down -- it's like winning the Super Bowl," beamed the founder of 84 Lumber, after state gambling regulators, on a 6-1 vote, awarded a coveted resort casino license to his Fayette County resort, Nemacolin Woodlands, Thursday.

"I'm thrilled. It's something that's really going to make Nemacolin. It will tie in beautifully with all our other amenities," which include two golf courses, a driving range, tennis courts, a zoo, a ski area, upscale suites and hotel rooms, restaurants, bars and spas.

"There isn't much we don't have at Nemacolin, other than an ocean," said Maggie Magerko, Mr. Hardy's daughter and president of Nemacolin and of 84 Lumber.

Nemacolin defeated three other competitors for the state's second and final resort casino license. The losers included the Mason-Dixon Resort & Casino, proposed for a conference center south of Gettysburg; a motel west of Harrisburg; and the Fernwood resort in the Poconos.

A resort casino can have up to 600 slot machines and up to 50 table games, which is considerably smaller than the existing racetrack/casinos and freestanding casinos in Pennsylvania. A 2004 law permits seven racetrack casinos, five nontrack casinos and two resort casinos.

The other resort casino, to open in 2012, will be at the Valley Forge Convention Center, 20 miles west of Philadelphia.

A spokesman for Mason-Dixon, David LaTorre, criticized the gaming board for giving the license to Nemacolin. "Joe Hardy finally got his casino license," Mr. LaTorre said.

He declined to elaborate, but the comment seemed a clear reference to unconfirmed speculation that circulated in 2004-05, after the slots law was approved by the Legislature, that then-powerful Democrats in the House, including Reps. Bill DeWeese of Greene/Fayette and Mike Veon of Beaver, had favored giving Nemacolin a slots license. Mr. Hardy is a political power in Fayette County.

Mr. LaTorre's comment irked Dick Gmerek, a lobbyist for Nemacolin. "Those guys [from Mason-Dixon] chose to go negative and take shots at Mr. Hardy and his family," he said. "We chose to be positive and talk about our resort and all its attractions."

Gaming board members insisted they had each made up their minds individually and thought Nemacolin was the best candidate. The lone dissenter, Ken Trujillo, said he liked Fernwood, a resort in the Poconos, because the population of Eastern Pennsylvania is growing much faster than that of Western Pennsylvania.

The board will issue a formal, written ruling explaining its decision in a few weeks.

The Mason-Dixon casino would have been a short distance from the southern boundary of the Gettysburg National Military Park, and Civil War advocates strongly opposed it, saying a gambling palace would dishonor the memory of those who died in the Civil War battle of July 1863.

"I feel great -- we did it -- we stopped the Gettysburg casino," said Susan Starr Paddock of No Casino Gettysburg. But she admitted, "I was nervous before the vote."

Blocking a casino near the battlefield "isn't just a benefit to Gettysburg, but to the whole state, the nation and to future generations," she said. "Now, we can stop wasting our time on this stupid idea" for a casino near Gettysburg.

Also pleased were the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Civil War Trust. "It's the right decision ... for the millions of Americans who believe in protecting our sacred sites," said Stephanie Meeks of the NTHP. "We hope this decision lays to rest, once and for all, the idea of placing a casino so close to this important historic site."

The gaming board has spent months considering the four applications for the resort hotel license. The process was slowed when two new members, Keith McCall and Anthony Moscato, joined the board in January and needed time to review the voluminous material. They, along with board Chairman Greg Fajt, Gary Sojka, James Ginty and Ray Angeli, voted for Nemacolin.

Mr. LaTorre said the Mason-Dixon casino would have been near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border and would draw from the millions of people in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. He also argued that his site was farther removed from any of the 10 existing Pennsylvania casinos than the other three applicants.

He said thousands of Adams County residents wanted a casino and the jobs it would bring. He also claimed Mason-Dixon would generate more money for homeowners' property relief than the other three sites would, but the board found those arguments unconvincing.

"We expect this will bring a lot more people to Nemacolin," said Ms. Magerko, who disputed claims by The Meadows race track/casino in Washington County, 60 miles away, that Nemacolin would hurt its business. "Someone coming to Nemacolin is a completely different type of guest than someone going to the Meadows."

Nemacolin spokesman Jeff Nobers said the casino will be at the resort's Wild Side entertainment center along Route 40, between its polo fields and Mystic Rock Golf Course. Work to renovate the center should begin once appeals and potential lawsuits are exhausted, Mr. Nobers said, and should take less than a year.

To be called the Lady Luck Casino, the 72,000-square-foot facility will be expanded with two 10,000-square-foot additions to house gaming offices and approximately 28 table games.

During the first year, Mr. Nobers said, the casino will have about 600 slots machines, located on the main floor. The casino will be managed by St. Louis-based Isle of Capri, which lost a bid with the Pittsburgh Penguins to operate a stand-alone casino in Pittsburgh.

Features already located at the center, such as a bar, bowling lanes and a giant fabricated mountain stacked with stuffed animals, likely will be relocated elsewhere at the resort, he said.

Road signs dotting Route 40 throughout the area indicate the community's support for the casino, including at Burd's Sunoco A-Plus, located across the street from the facility.

"We get a lot of traffic from the golfers in the summer," said store clerk Sharon Jackson of Stewart. "We're looking forward to the business from all the construction workers. This will help everybody."

The casino also received support from area businesspeople, the local Chamber of Commerce, and elected officials, many of whom testified on behalf of the project at a gaming board hearing last year.

"It's been overwhelmingly positive," Mr. Nobers said about local support. "You have some people who are morally opposed to gaming, and we certainly respect that, but there's been no organized opposition."

Mr. Nobers said that unlike other casinos, slots aren't expected to be the top revenue generator. "Our intent isn't to bring busloads of tourists in here who just want to go to a casino," he said. "It's a whole different marketing concept."

Mr. Nobers said gaming could be the fourth- or fifth-highest revenue generator, behind hotel rooms, food and beverage sales, and the resort's spa services. He said the resort would likely offer packages for golf or spa weekends, combined with casino nights for guests.

The news that Nemacolin was awarded the license buoyed Fayette County Commissioner Vincent A. Vicites. "It's great news," he said. "This will bring in 300,000 more people on an annual basis."

The resort anticipates hiring 400 permanent casino workers and 200 new workers elsewhere in the resort, along with creating 120 construction jobs.

The county and Wharton Township, where the casino will be located, expect local share revenues of at least $1 million per year, according to estimates provided by Nemacolin in its gaming application.

"Those are monies that we could really use to help our economic development," Mr. Vicites said. "It's a brick that builds our foundation for the future."


Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-623-1238. Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 724-223-0156.


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