VALLEY FORGE, Pa. -- Move over, George Washington. You, too, King of Prussia Mall shoppers. There's a new kid in town to compete for the thousands of travelers and tourists who flock to this busy, upscale suburban area each year.
A former conference center 20 miles west of Philadelphia has just been given new life as the Valley Forge Casino Resort, a small but noisy palace of buzzers, bells, flashing lights, one-armed bandits and tables for dice and other games.
The casino, with 600 slot machines and 50 table games, is the first of two "resort casinos" to be built in Pennsylvania. It's smaller than the other casinos in the state, which are either racetrack/casinos, such as The Meadows in Washington County, or stand-alones, such as The Rivers on Pittsburgh's North Shore.
The new casino is just three weeks old, located off the Valley Forge exit of the turnpike. It's also just 100 yards from one of Pennsylvania's best-known tourist attractions -- the Valley Forge National Historical Park.
That 3,600-acre historical preserve is where the Continental Army, under the command of Gen. Washington, huddled during the harsh, frigid winter of 1777-78 because British troops were occupying Philadelphia.
The new casino is also just a few miles from one of the largest and most popular malls in the United States, in King of Prussia.
Turning the conference center into a brightly lit, gambler-friendly space cost $165 million. There are still 100,000 square feet of meeting rooms on the floor just below the 100,000-square-foot casino.
"We wanted a comfortable 'feel' to the casino, with wide aisles and warm colors, such as earth tones like wood and amber," said CEO Saverio "Sal" Scheri, who had worked on the Mohegan Sun casino at Pocono Downs near Wilkes-Barre, plus casinos in several other states, before coming here a year ago.
A large bar sits in the center of the gaming floor, where cocktail waitresses in very short black dresses get drinks for customers so they don't have to leave their games.
"I really like this casino," Marian Corcoran of Limerick, a Philly suburb, told a reporter last week. "This is my second time here. It's a great place to play the slots. The employees are wonderful, very helpful. I think this is going to work," meaning succeed in luring tourists and visitors to the area.
"I like it here, too," said Debra Knabb, who lives near Reading, about 45 minutes away. "This place isn't too crowded."
The Valley Forge casino is almost certainly the envy of officials at the posh Nemacolin Woodlands resort in Fayette County, which hopes to become the state's second and final resort casino.
Nemacolin does have a casino license from the state, but hasn't been able to open due to a lawsuit filed by a losing bidder, who wants to build a casino just south of Gettysburg.
Joseph Weinert, who keeps tabs on casinos nationally from his post at Spectrum Gaming Group near Atlantic City, N.J., said the new Valley Forge casino will enhance Pennsylvania's already strong position in wagering.
"The growth of the Pennsylvania gaming industry is the envy of the whole U.S. gaming industry," he said.
Why so? Mr. Weinert said it's because Pennsylvania has casinos in "all the right markets," those with high populations and within easy reach of tourists.
"And yet the casinos are geographically separate enough to keep the cannibalization to a minimum," he added, meaning that newly opened casinos aren't eating too deeply into the profits of existing casinos.
The Pennsylvania gaming control act of 2004 authorized 14 casinos, in three different types. Seven are to be racetrack casinos (with all but one now open) and five are stand-alone casinos, with all but one of them also open.
The only "racino" that isn't built will go in Lawrence County, west of New Castle, near the Ohio line. Difficulty in raising the needed $400 million, plus several changes in ownership and investors, have slowed progress. The group is expected to seek a gaming license soon. The only unbuilt stand-alone casino is to go in Philadelphia, although some legislators want to move it to a different part of the state.
The two resort casinos are much smaller than the other 12, with only 600 slots and 50 table games compared to 3,000 or so slots and several hundred tables in the larger casinos.
Valley Forge's casino is owned by an investor group led by Philadelphia businessman Ira Lubert and his son, Jon Lubert, plus some officials of GF Hotel Management and a major Philadelphia law firm, Cozen O'Connor.
Mr. Weinert said the casino is in "a demographically attractive area, with a lot of higher-earning people living nearby," an area called the Main Line, with upscale neighborhoods along a railroad line west of Philadelphia.
Mr. Weinert said he wants to see how well the smaller resort casino does in luring gamblers, especially because three larger casinos are each about 30 miles away -- the Parx racetrack/casino north of Philadelphia, Harrah's "racino" near Chester, south of Philly, and a stand-alone casino within the city itself.
There's something else different at Valley Forge -- to gamble, you either have to pay a partial or full membership fee (costing $30 to $69 a year) or else you first have to spend at least $10 at one of the restaurants, bars, stores or hotel rooms at the casino. At the larger casinos, a person can just walk in and begin gambling.
"We will look to see how this membership model works," Mr. Weinert said. "It's quite possible that other states could emulate it, depending on its success."
Officials at Valley Forge National Historical Park have had little to say about their new neighbor. Kate Hammond, the park's superintendent, declined to say if she thinks the casino might cut into attendance at the historical park.
All she would say is, "We look forward to a continued dialogue on issues of mutual interest and concern," such as traffic or urban planning.
The Valley Forge casino actually got its slots license from the state more than two years ago, but was delayed in opening by a suit filed by Parx racetrack/casino in nearby Bucks County. It was concerned about the proximity of Valley Forge and the possibility it could siphon off gamblers. But the state Supreme Court ruled in Valley Forge's favor.
The hotel has 486 rooms plus 20 larger suites on the 15th floor, including one with a Hollywood theme, a Caesar's Palace theme and a "Cleopatra Tent'' theme. The casino also offers a shuttle service to the King of Prussia Mall.
Dave Gratz, a gambler from nearby Devon, wasn't sure he liked the "membership" concept governing entrance into the Valley Forge resort.
Even though the new casino is just five minutes from his home, he still prefers making the 25-minute drive to Harrah's casino, which has a much larger selection of slot machines and better restaurants than "the relatively humble food court here," he said.
Casino CEO Scheri said he didn't have attendance figures yet because the casino just opened. But he was pleased that several hundred gamblers had shown up last Wednesday afternoon, and said on Friday and Saturday nights, when a disc jockey plays music, there are as many as 2,000.
"It creates a club-like feel," he said. He thinks the casino will fit in well with the other attractions in the area and "become a great community neighbor."
Tom Barnes: email@example.com or 717-623-1238. First Published April 22, 2012 4:00 AM