Joe Billhimer is in the process of trying to complete two new casinos within months for Cordish Gaming Group, but first, there are some other details he needs to attend to in Pennsylvania.
Billhimer, the Baltimore-based firm’s newly named executive vice president overseeing Pennsylvania projects, said one goal is to have the company’s PlayLive! online casino approved by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to begin operating in August.
At the same time, he said Cordish is evaluating the possibility of bidding $7.5 million or more on Sept. 2 at a gaming board auction being held for a fifth mini-casino license in the state.
The private company already has plans before year’s end to open the state’s first mini-casino, which will be in Westmoreland Mall about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. That site will be a satellite of the flagship Live! Casino & Hotel property under construction in Philadelphia, which has now been pushed back to a planned opening in the first quarter of 2021.
COVID caused modest construction delays
In an interview Tuesday, Billhimer said COVID-19 concerns caused “a little bit” of construction delay for both the Philadelphia and Westmoreland projects, but did nothing to prompt major reconsideration about them.
Cordish, operating in Pennsylvania through its Stadium Casino LLC affiliate, is investing $700 million in its Philadelphia project and $150 million in its Hempfield, Westmoreland County, overhaul of a former department store.
“We’re optimistic about both of our projects, primarily because of what they bring to the areas they’re coming to,” Billhimer said. “In Philadelphia, we’re stepping into a premier site with great access, great location, a bit more mature market with great competitors we have a lot of respect for. But we think our location is second to none, not only in the Philadelphia market but around the nation.”
At one time, before COVID-related delays, both the Philadelphia and Westmoreland projects were scheduled for late 2020 completion. Now Westmoreland, to open with 750 slot machines and 30 table games, is somewhat ahead, ready to become the 13th gaming property in Pennsylvania, followed early next year by Live! Philadelphia as the 14th.
The Philadelphia property, with 2,200 slot machines and 150-plus table games, will compete with Rivers Philadelphia and others in a crowded southeastern Pennsylvania market.
The hope is to operate iCasino next month
The 10 online casino sites in Pennsylvania that combined for $50.1 million in revenue in June all started after their affiliated brick-and-mortar casinos were already operating. That won’t be the case for Cordish and PlayLive!
Billhimer said the company is doing everything possible to get gaming board approval to launch its iGaming platform next month, using GAN as its software provider.
Cordish also has an agreement with FanDuel to run its two sportsbooks at the new properties as well as connecting Live! customers to its online/mobile sportsbook. FanDuel already runs the state’s most popular online sportsbook through a partnership with Valley Forge Casino Resort.
Billhimer said the PlayLive! site with casino games will not be connected to the sportsbook and FanDuel.
The gaming board next meets Aug. 5, and it’s possible it could take approval action then related to PlayLive! The board also at that time might act on a request from MGM Resorts International to begin operating its BetMGM online casino in the state.
Another mini-casino could be tempting
Cordish bid $40.1 million in January 2018 for the right to develop its mini-casino in Westmoreland County, and it has begun the hiring process for some 500 workers it expects to employ there.
The state ended up with bids for five mini-casinos instead of the 10 allowed under 2017 gaming expansion legislation. One of those bidders, Mount Airy Casino Resort, ran into financing problems and backed out of its development plan in Beaver County.
The bidding process is being reopened under recent legislation enacted in Harrisburg, in hopes of bringing at least $7.5 million in additional revenue to a state budget wracked by COVID-19 economic impact. Neither Cordish nor any other gaming operator bid at the last auction held a year ago, but things could be different this time, considering Mount Airy’s withdrawal from western Pennsylvania.
Billhimer declined to say with any certainty that Cordish would be bidding this September, but he made it sound like the company is certainly intrigued by the prospect of having a second mini-casino.
“I would tell you it’s safe to say that we’re an entrepreneurial company that looks for opportunities wherever they may be, and we are actively looking at opportunities all the time,” he stated. “As those opportunities come up, we do our diligence and work with the ownership group and make a determination. We’re in that process now.”
Cordish benefits from its private status
Billhimer has experience in multiple states over decades as a casino industry executive, and that includes Pennsylvania experience in overseeing Presque Isle Downs & Casino as part of his leadership responsibilities with MTR Gaming and subsequently Eldorado Resorts from 2011-16.
His work has involved regional rather than “destination” casinos, but he said the Philadelphia property is especially interesting because it falls into both categories.
“It’s both a great regional property and a destination, with our location in the stadium district as one of the only properties in the country to be located among four major league sports teams,” Billhimer said.
He said everyone in the industry has unprecedented concerns right now related to COVID-19 risks and precautions, and preparing the new properties properly is being taken into account using the latest health recommendations.
But one advantage of being a private company, he said, is it doesn’t need to make decisions based on the immediate impact of the pandemic on the industry’s revenue. The difficulties many operators are having now with their financial outlook won’t necessarily affect how Cordish, which already owns a casino in Maryland, sizes up the future.
“The Cordish Companies being private, we look at opportunities for the long run, not necessarily the short run,” Billhimer stressed. “Any opportunity we look at, not specifically just the potential [mini-casino] bid in Pennsylvania, we try to look for the longer horizon more than other companies that are maybe focused more just on their next earnings report.”
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