Pennsylvania's newest casino opens at Valley Forge

Antez Hutchinson, top, of Coatesville,was among the first day's players at the Valley Forge Casino Resort, the Philadelphia area's fourth gambling hall. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Antez Hutchinson, top, of Coatesville,was among the first day's players at the Valley Forge Casino Resort, the Philadelphia area's fourth gambling hall. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer (Antez Hutchinson, top, of Coatesville,)
Posted: April 01, 2012

A stone's throw from where George Washington and his troops camped for the winter, Valley Forge Casino Resort opened early Saturday and became the Philadelphia region's fourth gambling hall.

The $165 million casino in Upper Merion Township becomes Pennsylvania's 11th; its smallest, with a 33,222-square-foot gaming floor; and the only one so far with special restrictions on who can gamble.

Security guards stationed at the edge of the casino floor watched as Ingrid Walker, 69, of Linwood, Delaware County, slid her access card into an electronic gateway. A green arrow lit to admit her, and Walker, who bought an annual membership at the casino resort, made her way in.

"I think it's good," she said of the access restrictions. "It keeps the riffraff out."

Of the casino, she said, "It's beautiful," and she planted herself at a penny slot machine.

With seven new dining spots (three of them sit-down restaurants), a nightclub and bar, and 100,000 square feet of meeting space, the casino resort sits next to Valley Forge National Historical Park and is two miles from King of Prussia Mall.

Under the state law that created casino resorts, anyone who wants to gamble at Valley Forge must spend at least $10 in the other facilities at the Valley Forge Convention Center. That includes staying in either of its two hotels, which have a combined 486 rooms, eating in the restaurants, shopping in the two retail outlets, or relaxing in the spa.

The convention center was recently rebranded as part of the casino resort. Anyone attending a meeting, convention, or other event there can also gamble, as can those who buy seasonal and annual memberships that cost $20 to $69.

"We are different, not like the others in the region," casino chairman and real estate magnate Ira Lubert said after Saturday's 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting. "This has more of a well-run, membership-club feel to it."

Designed by Cope Linder Architects of Philadelphia, with interiors by the city's Floss Barber Inc., the Montgomery County casino joins SugarHouse on Penn's Landing, Harrah's in Chester, and Parx in Bensalem as the fourth gaming venue within a 29-mile radius.

In Atlantic City, about a 11/2-hour drive away, the Shore's 12th casino - the $2.4 billion, 6.3 million-square-foot Revel - will make its debut Monday for an eight-week preview.

"Any way you analyze it, the greater Philadelphia gaming landscape is crowded," said Joseph Weinert of Spectrum Gaming Group L.L.C. in Linwood, N.J. "The openings of Valley Forge Casino Resort and Revel will only intensify the competition, although they are appealing to vastly different markets."

At least one rival, Parx - Pennsylvania's top-grossing casino - considered Valley Forge enough of a threat to take the Lubert-led investor group, Valley Forge Convention Center Partners L.P., to court to challenge its winning the first of two casino-resort licenses in spring 2009. Parx argued that the Valley Forge Convention Center failed to meet "well-established resort hotel" criteria under state law.

But in March 2011, the state Supreme Court ruled otherwise, and construction of the casino began in September with $30 million in equity financing from CMS Cos. of Wynnewood.

Finishing touches were being added right up until the casino's opening midnight Friday, when about 500 people waited in line to get in. Tim Leonard, 52, a technology executive from Mount Laurel, watched the casino go up from his office window - his company is in the same office park.

"I think gambling will be good for the area," Leonard said Thursday. "It will bring in more people and tourists."

Sisters Delores Thomas, 70, and Angela Miller, 62, of Overbrook, are regulars at SugarHouse but wanted to check out the new casino. So each bought a $10 gift card to gamble there before making their way to the King of Prussia Mall.

"It's a one-stop shop," Thomas said as they ate in the casino food court after each had won at slots. "We get to gamble, have lunch, and go shopping."

Valley Forge Casino Resort uses a silver "V" logo in ads and on billboards dotting the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-76, and I-95. There's also a "V" sculpture at its entrance at 1160 First Ave. Management says the logo stands for "victory" - what gamblers aim to achieve at its slots and table games - but it's also partly a nod to the historic location.

Historical accounts say Gen. Washington, with the aid of Prussian military officer Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, unified and standardized the Continental Army when it camped at Valley Forge from December 1777 to June 1778. Their preparation led to the capture of Hessian and British troops at the Battle of Monmouth, considered a turning point in the American Revolution.

Such historical significance is why "it's horrifying to us that a casino should rise not 500 feet from an icon of American sacrifice and bravery," said James Schneller, head of the anticasino group Eastern Pennsylvania Citizens Against Gambling.

"I think it will draw the wrong kind," said Tom Neiss, 50, of Glenmoore, a medical writer for Johnson & Johnson. He has fond childhood memories of seeing the old house Washington stayed in, the reconstructed log huts, and the earthwork defenses the soldiers erected to bury cannons. He still hikes and picnics at the park.

"Gambling is just a tax on people," Neiss said, "a way to lose money."

But local resident Laura Raycek, 22, who works at a dog-training facility in King of Prussia, has a different take.

"It's fine . . . as long as it does nothing to the park," Raycek said while walking her greyhound-pit mix, L.J., on one of the trails there Thursday, the casino visible across North Gulph Road. "People have the right to gamble."

On Saturday, the gaming floor lit up with 600 slot machines - the maximum permitted at a casino resort - and 50 game tables (for blackjack, craps, roulette, and baccarat) staffed by dealers in bright-red long-sleeve shirts, black vests, and black slacks. Valley Forge has the option to add up to 15 tables for monthly poker and blackjack tournaments.

It is the only Pennsylvania venue so far with a $10 minimum spending requirement. Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in southwestern Pennsylvania snatched the second casino-resort license in May and also will be required to have a $10 minimum when it opens its casino.

The access plan "hasn't been an issue," Valley Forge CEO Saverio "Sal" Scheri III said as he greeted patrons. "We're thrilled. People are learning it quickly and are acclimating to it."

The casino created 900 jobs (650 full time) and selected employees from among more than 15,000 applicants, Scheri said. The Valley Forge investor group expects to generate $64.6 million in gross slots revenue and $28.7 million in gross table-game revenue in the first year, according to the state Gaming Control Board.

Lubert said he hoped 70 percent of revenue would come from gaming, and the rest from rooms, meetings, banquets, and weddings.

Upper Merion Township and Montgomery County will split the 4 percent local-share assessment from gross slots revenue and the 2 percent local-share assessment from table-game revenue. The county also will receive 3 percent of the hotel tax from the Radisson and the Casino Tower (formerly the Scanticon Hotel).

Antez Hutcherson, 26, of Coatesville, was hoping for his own windfall at a craps table Saturday after signing up for a three-month, $20 membership.

"Right now, I'm about even," the life-insurance claims representative said as he rolled the dice. "Hopefully, I'll leave up."


Contact Suzette Parmley at 856-779-3844 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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