Southeastern PA

Applicants make pitch for Philadelphia casino license

PHILADELPHIA - Pennsylvania's fifth and final stand-alone casino will need to offer more than just slot machines and table games in an increasingly saturated market, a state gambling regulator said Tuesday at a hearing that will help determine which of the five applicants gets the coveted license.

"I don't believe we have the capacity to open just another casino. We need something that's more than just a casino," said Gregory Fajt, a member of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, addressing what he called the "elephant in the room."

Pennsylvania's casino industry suffered its first overall revenue decline last year since casino play began in 2006, dipping 1.4 percent to $3.1 billion. The state's southeastern corner already has four casinos, including the SugarHouse Casino along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

"Our gaming revenues are starting to max out," Fajt told The Associated Press during a break. "I do worry about cannibalizing revenues of our existing casinos by opening a new casino, and I think we need to take that into consideration."

State law allows the city a second casino, and the five applicants are making their final pitches this week to state regulators. SugarHouse contends the market is already saturated and has asked the board to sit on the license.

Tuesday's session in Philadelphia opened with Penn National Gaming Inc.'s Hollywood Casino proposal. The Wyomissing, Berks Co.-based gambling giant wants to build a $480 million casino near the sports stadiums in south Philadelphia.

Fajt questioned whether the project is distinctive enough, asking Penn National executives "what do you think will separate you from the myriad of other casinos within a 150-mile radius." The company responded that convenience is gamblers' No. 1 priority, pointing to the casino's location near Interstates 76 and 95 and saying it would draw gamblers from southern New Jersey.

But, like the other proposed casinos, Penn National would also take gamblers from SugarHouse and other Pennsylvania facilities.

Penn National projects that 60 percent of the casino's patrons would be new, with 40 percent cannibalized from existing casinos, Jay Snowden, the company's chief operating officer, told the board.

Board members also asked about Penn National's plan to split the project into development phases, questioning why the company wouldn't build it all at once.

"When I hear different phases for projects, I get a little skittish because we've been burned before," Fajt said.

Tim Wilmott, president and chief executive officer, replied the company does not want to overspend on a casino project, pointing to the troubled $2.4 billion Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., which filed for bankruptcy less than a year after its April 2012 opening

"We don't want to end up like Revel, where it's overcapitalized in a market that can't support that level of investment," he said.

Wilmott acknowledged the project's second development phase, which contemplates a 500-room hotel, an event space and 1,000 additional slot machines, might never materialize if the market doesn't grow sufficiently.

Regulators are hearing later Tuesday from a developer who wants to convert the former home of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News into the $700 million Provence casino.

Three other applicants will get their chance Wednesday and Thursday. The gambling board expects to make a decision within a few months.

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