Philly Deals: Slow start for Valley Forge's clubby gambling hall

Carol Balog of Pottstown tries her luck at the slot machines at the newly opened Valley Forge Casino Resort. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Carol Balog of Pottstown tries her luck at the slot machines at the newly opened Valley Forge Casino Resort. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 01, 2012

Ira Lubert and the professional investors he's hired as partners manage more than $10 billion in other people's money. With his fortune from profits and fees, Lubert buys his personal investments.

Three months ago, a group he heads premiered 600 slot machines and 50 gambling tables, built around a stylish hotel bar and amid seven new restaurants, in a two-hotel complex at their Valley Forge Casino Resort.

It's a small place compared, say, with the 3,500-slots, 180-table Parx in Bensalem, whose court challenges helped delay Lubert's casino for six years. He persisted. "I gave my word. And my competitive juices kicked in," he said, sitting at his Pacific Prime restaurant ($12 fruit ceviche, $36 striped bass, $48 20-ounce veal porterhouse) as late-morning gamblers greeted pit bosses and dealers on the quiet betting floor.

Victory had conditions. As a licensed Pennsylvania "resort casino," Valley Forge has to collect state-imposed entrance fees — $10, redeemable for restaurant meals, or up to $59 for a year, including discounts. Hotel and event guests can bet, too.

"Paying to go into a casino feels wrong, [but] they made it palatable by giving the value back in free meals," said Tom Lamphere, executive director of the Pennsylvania Society for Respiratory Care, one of the groups that has patronized the Valley Forge complex for meetings since before the casino arrived and that Lubert is trying to convert into repeat diners and bettors.

"The $10 fee is, I think, a great idea. It gives you, I'd call it, a select demographic," said Stephen Cohen, sales manager at Peirce-Phelps, the Philadelphia-based air-conditioning supplier, who plans to bring 300 people in for a dealer meeting and trade show. "The casino helps us draw more attendees." Like the entertainment, he added: Boys II Men sang last week; ex-Eagles coach Dick Vermeil promoted wines. "I like the fact it's intimate."

"To have to pay an admission fee, it's unheard of," said Brian McGill, casino analyst at Janney Capital Markets in Philadelphia. "The perception is hurting them. If I were them, I'd start lobbying the legislature to eliminate the $10." (Pennsylvania collects more revenue than any other state from casino gambling.)

It has been a slow start, Lubert said, sighing: "It's amazing to me — I thought the ribbon would get cut and 100,000 people would walk through the door." So far, he's signed up 43,000 card-carrying customers from one or more visits. The slots bet is about $10 million a week, compared with more than $50 million at Harrah's bigger hall in Chester. Then again, reasoned Lubert, Rivers, the Pittsburgh casino where he is a minority owner, got off to a slow start; it now leads its nearest neighbor.

To staff Valley Forge, Lubert said, he uses the same formula as at his investment funds: "Bright people, best of breed." At Valley Forge that includes Martin Doyle, formerly of Borgata and New York' s ‘21' Club, and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's restaurants at the Sands in Bethlehem.

Why move here? "When you do restaurants with Emeril, it's his concepts," Doyle told me as his boss, chief executive Mike Bowman (late of Harrah's), looked on, nodding. "Here we were given a free hand. King of Prussia has every chain in the world at the mall, Maggiano's to Hooters. Seasons 52, Redstone, they do a great job. Now, we could have done another steak house. But we gave it a twist. Made it exquisite." He recruited veterans of Georges Perrier's fancy kitchens, and Susanna Foo's.

The group held a national taste-off to pick food purveyors, were "blown away" by Atlanta's Buckhead Beef, and tapped Samuels & Son of Philadelphia for fish. "It's a discerning clientele," Doyle said. "You know from what they order, and how."

"We have a phenomenal location. And the highest-income demographic in the state," Lubert said.

Why aren't they jamming the place today? "Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, they're working."

Nights and weekends, "we're becoming a destination spot," offered Bowman. "We're on the road to that," affirmed Doyle.

Lubert nodded: "We just need 100,000 more people to try us for the first time."

Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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