Pennsylvania’s mini-casino era began Tuesday morning with wide praise offered by the game-players and risk-takers who showed up for a first look at the Live! Pittsburgh venue in Westmoreland County.
Dozens were lined up for the 6 a.m. opening outside the converted former Bon-Ton store at Westmoreland Mall, and by mid-morning several hundred had entered, wearing masks and having temperatures automatically checked.
They played the same table games and machines as inside larger casinos, and the fact that there were fewer of those options seemed to bother no one. To some, the smaller size than Pennsylvania’s other casinos even seemed an asset.
“You’re not gonna get lost,” Lora Sadler, 53, noted while contentedly ahead after putting $20 into the King of Africa slot machine. “I like that you don’t have to walk forever to get anywhere. It’s more intimate.”
Other opening-day patrons of Pennsylvania’s first new casino in seven years lauded a sense of both cleanliness and friendliness in an environment about one-half to one-third the size of the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, located less than 40 miles to the west, or Meadows Racetrack & Casino in adjacent Washington County.
One white-haired patron walking by General Manager Sean Sullivan remarked, “Thanks for bringing me something new to get excited about,” and it put a big smile on the face of the longtime casino executive.
“You only get one chance for a first impression,” Sullivan said, satisfied that months of preparation during one of the most precarious times for the casino industry seemed to be paying off.
Mini-casino is the first of five
The Live! mini-casino of The Cordish Companies, which is also nearing completion of a larger hotel-casino in Philadelphia, is to be one of five in the state that can have up to 750 slot machines and 30 to 40 table games. Most existing casinos have 2,000 to 3,000 slots.
Under a 2017 gaming expansion law, casino operators were able to bid at auction for the right to develop the smaller gambling halls as satellites to their other operations. The four other mini-casinos have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic or other issues, but Penn National Gaming plans to open its two in York and Berks counties in late 2021.
Executives of the Baltimore-based Cordish firm have called their Westmoreland Mall venture along busy Route 30 near Greensburg a $150 million project, including their $40.1 million auction bid.
The idea behind the mini-casinos, beyond what the state collected from five auction bids, is to add government tax revenue while spreading more legal gambling options outside the state’s biggest population centers. It is a form of “convenience” gambling for those who appreciate a shorter drive or don’t want to fight city traffic.
While hundreds of municipalities around the state took advantage of a chance to opt out of hosting the new gambling halls, local officials in Westmoreland County and other areas have welcomed the projects for their economic development potential. Sullivan said nearly 500 employees have been hired, with more in the pipeline.
Patrons appreciate being closer to the action
The idea of a closer-to-home destination for their gambling entertainment was on the minds of many of those playing games, walking around, eating at one of two restaurants, or surveying the massive, two-story television wall that is part of the casino’s FanDuel Sportsbook.
Bob and Lena Bodzenski, a couple in their early 70s, had just walked in after a 20-minute drive from Irwin and were impressed by the appearance before they started playing. They also liked the convenience of being connected to the mall, if they needed to do any shopping.
Asked how often they would return, Lena laughed and said, “All the time. At least once a week.”
It was a refrain heard from others — that having a casino easier to access would likely increase their visitation.
Jessica Hoke, 53, and her daughter Janice, 25, were touring the family-friendly game area of bowling, foosball, a golf simulator, dining, and other options on the upstairs level, where any age is welcome because all of the gambling takes place behind security entrances downstairs.
Jessica pictures coming back twice a month from Latrobe, 15 minutes away, joined by her husband and with three children who are under age 21. That would be twice as often as she’s been visiting the Meadows an hour away.
“You can bring your kids up here, have dinner, and the husband can sit with the kids while [Janice] and I go down and gamble,” Jessica said. “It’s the right size — not a confusing layout.”
Sullivan, who was formerly general manager at the Meadows, knows that is exactly the kind of customer the new place can attract.
“I can tell you from being there that there were a lot of people from Westmoreland County there, and now this gives them a favorite hometown casino.”
COVID concerns loom, but being new helps
The mini-casino’s opening coincides with increasing rates of COVID-19 in the region and across the state and nation. The coronavirus forced all casinos to shut down in the spring, and some states have imposed new closures. That hasn’t happened yet across Pennsylvania, but last week, the city of Philadelphia ordered the shutdown of Rivers Casino there for the remainder of the year along with other public gathering spaces.
Sullivan said the COVID threat is recognized, but Live! Pittsburgh also had an advantage in being constructed with full awareness of the health concerns instead of being remodeled after the fact.
Thus, there is plexiglass everywhere, including between individual slot machines, and a state-of-the-art air filtration system, along with the type of sanitizing, masking, and temperature checks expected now of all casinos. The casino also plans to make use of technology on its new slot machines that automatically summons a staff member for cleaning once a player gets up.
“I believe if we provide an experience that’s safe, that both our team members and guests feel and see and experience, I think we can live through it,” Sullivan said while pointing to a line of people outside the entrance who were respectfully distancing themselves from one another. “A lot of it is the behavior of everybody, and we’re pleased with how everybody is so cognizant of it.”
Emily Comforti, 22, a bartender for the facility’s expansive Sports & Social Steel City, said she feels reassured by the precautions including gloves and hand-washing that are mandated for employees like her.
“The management is awesome with the staff — we definitely practiced sanitizing like crazy,” said Comforti, who has three other acquaintances also happy to find work at the casino. “I’m sure it’s in the back of everybody’s head — if we’re going to get shut down — but all I can say now is I hope we don’t.”
The gamblers visiting on Tuesday said they felt comfortable about their health and the precautions being taken. Those who had concerns, obviously, were those who stayed at home and were nowhere to be seen.
Kenneth Burton, 59, of Connellsville, playing slots with his wife and her friend, said he felt good about the air system inside and wasn’t about to be dissuaded from patronizing a more convenient casino option than those he could previously enjoy.
“If you’re gonna get it, you’re get it — that’s the way I feel,” the masked man said of COVID as he headed off to a new machine.