30 Years: Let the gaming begin in Pittsburgh casinos

Part of the 30 Years, 30 Changes series on the Pittsburgh region

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Gambling-oriented Pittsburghers craving a casino experience in the 1980s exchanged their cash for chips largely by motoring to Atlantic City or flying to Las Vegas. (The Concorde wasn't serving the Pittsburgh-Monte Carlo route, after all.)

In 2013, many in the region are only minutes away from one of the gambling halls opened in the past six years, and the new casinos have been a significant source of jobs, tax revenue and entertainment -- while also ensuring that most players keep their money here.

Pennsylvania legalized casinos in 2004, with advocates calling it an overdue move to reclaim the revenue that Pennsylvanians had begun taking out of state -- to casinos opened in West Virginia and Delaware in the 1990s, in addition to the ensconced gambling palaces in New Jersey and Nevada. The change meant local residents' legal wagers would no longer be limited to horse racing, the state lottery and church bingo, which was the case in 1983.

Thousands of slot machines were first available for play locally at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington County in 2007, followed by the Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh's North Shore in 2009. Both added table games in 2010 when allowed to do so by state legislation.

Combined, the two casinos' gambling revenue -- the equivalent of the losses left behind by players, with a share going to state and local taxes -- amounted to more than $629 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Pennsylvania, which has 12 casinos, has surpassed New Jersey to become the biggest state for gambling revenue outside of Nevada.

The state's newest facility is also local, the smaller Lady Luck Casino, which opened with 600 slot machines July 1 at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County. But that doesn't necessarily end the supply of new gambling opportunities in Western Pennsylvania.

Plans for a racetrack-casino west of New Castle have long been stalled by financing issues, but developers say they are now on track to open the $160 million Lawrence Downs Casino and Racing Resort within two years.

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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