Making the News

Philadelphia Inquirer

Originally Published:Monday, February 22, 2010
http://www.philly.com/inquirer/front_page/20100222_how_many_casinos_are_too_many__1.html?viewall=y

How many casinos are too many?

By Jennifer Lin
Philadelphia Inquirer

Fast-forward a few years. You're feeling lucky and trolling I-95 for a place to roll the dice or play the slots.

Within a 60-mile stretch, five casinos beckon: one at a racetrack outside Wilmington, one in the city of Chester, two along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, and another just over the city line in Bucks County.

Want more?

From Bensalem, head west 29 miles on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a resort casino at the Valley Forge Convention Center, or north 50 miles to Bethlehem.

The Philadelphia region can claim many distinctions, and if all the grand plans of casino investors fall into place, gaming soon will be one of them.

Along with Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the Wilmington-to-Bethlehem corridor is expected to emerge by 2013 as one of the nation's top gambling markets, where seven casinos could pull in total annual revenue of $1.9 billion via table games and 19,000 slots.

With four casinos already in operation, and the rest scheduled to open by 2013, the question is increasingly being asked: How many are too many?

Local anti-gaming activists, intent on rolling back the number of planned casinos, have warned that the region already has too many gambling halls. Casino-Free Philadelphia has tried to block development of the city's two waterfront enterprises, arguing that gaming is a predatory business that exacerbates such social ills as crime and gambling addictions.

Others also are voicing concerns about a gaming glut, if for purely business reasons.

Last June, the operators of Parx Casino in Bensalem (formerly PhiladelphiaPark Racetrack & Casino) filed a petition against the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board for awarding a casino license to the owners of the Valley Forge Convention Center.

In a sealed lawsuit in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (where all gaming-related complaints go), Greenwood Gaming & Entertainment Inc. alleged that Valley Forge would draw revenue away from other operators.

The project is on hold, pending the high court's decision.

Attorneys for both sides declined to comment. However, in previous testimony to state regulators, Greenwood officials warned that yet another casino in the area would "cannibalize" the competition in an already saturated market.

Last year, Parx took in $357 million from more than 3,000 slot machines.

The Valley Forge investors, led by developer Ira Lubert, anticipate annual revenue of $60 million from 500 slots. They say their casino will have a minimal effect on the other operations, and they calculate that about one-third of the revenue will come from their own hotel guests and conventioneers.

Valley Forge would be a minor tremor compared with the quake to come: the opening of two full-scale casinos on the Philadelphia waterfront.

"The Philadelphia market is pretty competitive now and will become intensely competitive," said Joseph Weinert, a senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group L.L.C., a gambling-research firm. Whether the two casinos can perform at expected levels, "I don't think anyone knows that."

The SugarHouse Casino, on 22 acres in Fishtown, is to open this August.

Investors in the Foxwoods Casino will soon announce a new plan for their project in South Philadelphia. Stephen A. Cozen, a Foxwoods attorney, said the group would present a new design at a hearing before the Gaming Control Board on March 3.

As has been rumored for weeks, Las Vegas impresario Stephen Wynn is in negotiations to take control of the project, according to industry sources.

State Sen. Robert M. "Tommy" Tomlinson, a Republican whose district includes the Parx Casino, said Pennsylvania's gaming industry currently is enjoying strong success by pulling customers away from Atlantic City. But once the Philadelphia casinos open, he said, "I do worry about too many locations."

There is the obvious potential hit to the casinos' bottom line. But Tomlinson said the state could lose, too.

"If you cannibalize the market, you won't have viable businesses," Tomlinson said. "Your revenue to the state will go down."

From nine casinos last year, Pennsylvania raised $1.1 billion in tax revenue, of which $660 million went toward property-tax and wage-tax relief, according to the Gaming Control Board.

The state's goal is to have 14 sites across Pennsylvania: seven racetrack casinos or "racinos," five stand-alone casinos, and two smaller resort casinos.

In 2004, when Pennsylvania lawmakers were creating the gaming industry, the state hired the Innovation Group, a casino consultant, to calculate the number and location of slots parlors.

Paul Girvan, a managing partner in the New Orleans office of the Innovation Group, said the firm was given three starting points:

Gov. Rendell insisted on raising $1 billion a year from casinos to use for property-tax relief.

Pittsburgh had to get one stand-alone casino and Philadelphia two.

Racetracks would be allowed to add slots.

Taking into consideration population, household income, and people's propensity to gamble, Girvan suggested that the state have 12 casinos. Lawmakers later increased the total to 14, adding two licenses for smaller resort casinos.

Since 2004, however, the gaming landscape in states surrounding Pennsylvania has radically changed. Ohio and Maryland have approved gambling. New York is adding a racino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. And Delaware, like Pennsylvania, is expanding to table games.

At the same time, the tanking economy has driven down casinos revenue across the country.

Nonetheless, Girvan said he still believed casino operators in the Philadelphia area would be able to make a reasonable return on their investment dollars.

"There could be some decline in revenue," he said, "but not catastrophic."

Many gaming analysts agree, noting that the local casinos appeal to the "convenience gambler" and tap a pool of almost six million people in the metropolitan area that includes Wilmington, Philadelphia, and South Jersey.

Those patrons value location above all. Parx, for instance, draws 65 percent of its regular players from a radius of 25 miles.

Table games will bolster revenue, too, by generating an additional $976 million a year statewide, the Innovation Group estimated. With the passage of a new law for table games in January, casinos can begin offering poker, roulette, blackjack, and other games.

Larry Klatzkin, a gaming analyst for Chapdelaine Credit Partners, said there was room for all the casinos in Philadelphia.

"Can people get into a marketing war and hurt each other's earnings? Yes," he said. "But as a group, it should eventually iron itself out. It should be a market that can survive."

 


Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or [email protected].

 

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