Nine years ago Sean Sullivan and Craig Clark first met over a friendly lunch as competing general managers of western Pennsylvania’s two biggest casinos: Rivers Pittsburgh and Meadows Racetrack & Casino.
Today the former rivals are teammates preparing Nov. 24 to open the region’s newest gaming hall — Live! Casino Pittsburgh — as the state’s first mini-casino, less than an hour’s drive from their former properties.
And knowing so well what’s already available in the region and what the new property in Westmoreland County can add, they couldn’t be more enthused.
They’re just not wild about the way people commonly refer to their casino category.
“We hate the term mini-casino,” said Sullivan, the property’s general manager, who held the top post at the Meadows under two different owners from 2009 to 2018. “It sure feels like a big casino — and it feels like the pressure of opening a big casino, trust me.”
It is the first of five mini-casinos
Sullivan discussed Live! Casino Pittsburgh on a joint phone call with Penn Bets Thursday joined by Clark, who is the new property’s director of finance and formerly was GM at Rivers from 2011-17.
Both executives have worked for multiple casinos in various jurisdictions, and Clark remembers being impressed as a Pittsburgh newcomer when Sullivan called him in 2011. Sullivan suggested a lunch to discuss their common interests and issues. It led to a series of friendly meetings over the years, even though they were in a tug-of-war over the many thousands of gamblers residing between Pittsburgh and Washington, Pa., some 35 miles south of the city.
The Meadows had its longtime harness racing track as additional entertainment and a quieter vibe overall, which tended to attract older customers who enjoyed slot machines and didn’t want to fight city traffic.
Rivers, just across the river from Pittsburgh’s Downtown, had a bigger nightlife buzz among the younger crowd and busier action at its table games.
Now just one county to the east, in Westmoreland Mall space once occupied by a Bon-Ton department store, comes the Live! addition along busy U.S. Route 30. Known formally as a Category 4 casino, and also informally as a satellite casino of the future Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia, it is a $150 million project of The Cordish Companies.
The Baltimore-based firm bid $40.1 million at auction in 2018 for the right to develop a mini-casino in Westmoreland County. Four more mini-casinos in central Pennsylvania are planned by other operators, but they are in various stages and none will be completed before the second half of 2021.
New property targets young patrons also
The new casino can have up to 750 slot machines and 30 table games, making it roughly one-half to one-third the size of the Pennsylvania casinos Sullivan and Clark helmed previously.
So Live! won’t draw the same volume of customers and make the same amount of revenue — its primary target is those in and around Westmoreland County who appreciate a shorter drive than the one they have been taking to reach existing casinos, which also include the small Lady Luck Nemacolin resort casino in Fayette County.
But Sullivan and Clark believe the newcomer also has plenty to appeal to patrons of its own accord.
“It’s extremely unique and something we believe is a model to the future,” Sullivan said.
Key to that is the upper floor of the two-level venue, which is open to all ages. It has a variety of games like bowling, darts, foosball, a golf simulator, and more overlooking the casino gaming on the first floor. Security checkpoints downstairs will make sure those accessing the area with slots and table games are at least 21.
But visible to all will be a 45-foot high video wall for sports viewing that anchors the FanDuel Sportsbook within the casino. Sports & Steel City will be available for dining on the second floor along with Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar.
“For a long time, we [in the casino industry] have been discussing who are these millennials, how do we monetize them, how do we get them in the joint,” Sullivan said, asserting that the variety of non-traditional casino games, food, and unparalleled sports viewing opportunity will do that.
New slots could be an advantage
At the same time, Sullivan expects more traditional casino customers to be impressed by the group of slot machines that will occupy the lower level.
“When you have all brand new machines, you get the latest, greatest from the assembly line,” he said. “The industry constantly has to reinvent itself.”
The problem for existing casinos, Sullivan said, is the $20,000 average cost of purchasing new machines to update themselves. “Our generation of new slots are more exciting, more entertaining than our competitors,” he asserted.
As to whether the region has enough gambling appetite to handle another casino, the Live! execs said they are confident it’s feasible.
“There’s always that conversation — no matter what state or jurisdiction — of how much is too much,” Sullivan acknowledged. “When we open up, we will put a hurt on Rivers and the Meadows, but not a huge one. We’ll grab a bit of their business, but a lot of it is about proximity, and about the quality people will see in our product — this property will compete handsomely.”
As to opening during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sullivan did not sound worried. It presents an opportunity, he said, as an all-new destination that can be designed with the most up-to-date precautions surrounding health and safety.
As part of that, he said, plexiglass shields have been installed around every seat, machine, and space where patrons interact with one another or employees.
It’s one benefit of being smaller than other properties, Sullivan said.
“Nobody in the country, I believe, has the level of protection we have at every seat in the casino. You can’t do that when you’re an MGM or Meadows,” he said. “This is a huge opportunity for our property to do it right. … It’s a big deal, and a big commitment on behalf of the Cordish family to say we’ll take care of you.”