Casino seen as 'win-win'
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On the one-year anniversary of The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, residents, officials and business owners say the gambling venue has been a welcome addition to the area.
Locals say they haven't seen a downside to the casino, which is credited with contributing $8 million to Washington County for local projects last year plus more than $2 million for North Strabane, where it is located.
The county funding, which will be used to expand business parks, restore historic sites, build infrastructure and supplement economic development projects, is expected to increase this year.
As of Wednesday, the anniversary of the grand opening, The Meadows reported gross revenues of about $230 million, exceeding the company's rosy predictions, which were met with skepticism from the state gaming board last year.
Those figures likely will dip a year from now, when the Majestic Star casino in Pittsburgh is expected to open. But for now, The Meadows parking lots are jammed on most nights, with overflow on weekends.
Even with the robust attendance, the casino appears to be a good neighbor to those living nearby.
"It is what it is," said Kristy Bennett, who lives in the Meadow Brook housing development, which abuts the casino parking lot. "You try to make the best of it."
In anticipation of the casino opening, Ms. Bennett and her neighbors expressed concern last year about noise and safety issues, but she said the casino has since installed a fence and planted trees as a buffer zone.
She said residents generally have been pleased with the casino, especially because the company provided a contact person to deal with problems, such as middle-of-the-night car alarms.
"We've had several issues going on, but we're happy," she said.
"You couldn't ask for a better neighbor," said North Strabane Manager Frank Siffrin. "Everything that was pledged by the owner of the casino in terms of site improvements and buffers and lessening the impact on adjacent residential developments has, in fact, been done."
Concerns about vehicle backups onto Interstate 79 and traffic jams on Race Track Road and Route 19 proved to be without merit. Three additional full-time officers were hired with part of the $2.29 million funding the township received in the first year as its share of casino revenue. No serious incidents have been reported.
"In one sentence -- it's exceeded our expectations," Mr. Siffrin said. "We have not had any difficulties whatsoever."
The township has used the bulk of its casino revenues for an $893,000 tower ladder truck for the volunteer fire department, for other equipment upgrades and for about $500,000 in road paving.
Good tourism attraction
J.R. Shaw, executive director of Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency, said casino officials have been good partners with the rest of the hospitality community.
The planned Aug. 29 opening of the Tanger Outlet Center on the hill across Race Track Road from the casino will give visitors more options.
Charter buses going to the casino are stopping at local restaurants and tourist sites, including the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.
"It's a great opportunity for us, to be able to offer a visitor one exit off of the interstate ... shopping on one side, gaming entertainment on another, top-notch hotels, dining options and, within a 20-minute drive, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, historic homes, heritage and culture," Mr. Shaw said.
The Tanger Outlet site is expected to attract hotels and chain restaurants, said Frank Salucci, general manager of outlet center.
"The Meadows makes us more of a destination stop," Mr. Salucci said.
The casino and outlet center are sharing the cost of $20 million in road upgrades, including the widening of Race Track Road and the addition of new traffic signals. The improvements are expected to be completed by the end of August.
Even with other hotels being built nearby, the Holiday Inn has seen an increase in overnight stays and in its restaurant business, said Sandy Wilson, director of sales and marketing.
The increase is largely due to lunch buffets offered to Meadows customers and special casino packages that include shuttle service and $10 slots certificates.
The hotel finished a $6 million renovation two years ago and recently completed upgrades to its outdoor patio area, which now contains a gazebo for weddings.
"I think it's great," Ms. Wilson said of the casino. "I think it's great for the community and for the county."
Farther down the road, near the intersection with Route 19, the Finish Line Racing Cafe has seen an increase in business -- not from slots customers, but from casino staff, who stop in for a cocktail or a meal after work. Cafe Manager Taylor Dino said the restaurant has seen about a 10 percent increase in business.
The owner of the Meadow Inn on Race Track Road at Pike Street said his tavern is being frequented mostly by construction workers who are working on the $155 million permanent casino, which will house a parking garage, bowling alley and permanent space for 4,200 slot machines.
Owner Sam Lauricia said he didn't expect much added business from The Meadows customers because he believes they'll be eager to head home after a visit to the casino.
"The odds are, you're going to be broke when you leave," he said.
Mr. Lauricia, who has owned the tavern for 33 years, said the increased construction business hasn't been enough to change his retirement plans. After unsuccessful attempts to sell the business, Mr. Lauricia said he will auction off the site July 15.
Casino officials tout their Neighborhood Partners program as a way the help the community instead of just taking money out of the local economy.
More than 20 businesses have agreed to accept vouchers from slots club members of The Meadows, who accumulate points when they use slots machines and have the option of redeeming those points through vouchers they can use for purchases locally. Players with points also have an option to redeem them for vouchers to stores such as Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Giant Eagle and Outback Steakhouse.
School groups also have benefitted through the program, earning commissions on gift cards that they sell through the casino.
The casino also has provided donations worth $152,000 to local charitable causes since it opened, with sponsorships of the Canonsburg Fourth of July parade and the North Strabane Spring Fling and with donations to the food bank and Washington County Hospital. Recently, the casino held a canned food drive that generated 10,000 pounds in donations to the food bank. It also donated turkeys at Christmas and gave the food bank proceeds from test nights before the facility opened.
"That's just part of being a good neighbor and taking care of people," Meadows General Manager Mike Graninger said.
County Commissioner J. Bracken Burns said the county has been pleased with the casino and has had no serious complaints, even though some at first predicted rampant crime and traffic problems.
"I think it's positive," he said. "There was a lot of concern about the negative impact, et cetera, et cetera. But, I haven't seen anything negative. The bottom line is, it still was a win-win for county taxpayers."
First Published June 15, 2008 12:00 am