Expanding Fight for Gamblers
MOUNT POCONO, Pa. The mirrors are gone from the ceilings and the rectangular walk-in showers do not exactly ooze romance, but Henry and Rene Marcus had not driven to what was once the honeymoon capital of the world because their marriage needed rekindling.
As soon as they arrived at Mount Airy Casino Resort here, Ms. Marcus disappeared into the soft ding-ding-dinging of the slot machines, while Mr. Marcus, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, set his eyes on the purple felt of the blackjack, poker, craps and roulette tables.
“Yesterday, we were at the Sands in Bethlehem,” said Mr. Marcus, 65, who owns a vintage clothing store in Greenwich Village, Andy’s Chee-Pees. “Two days ago, we were at Yonkers. I don’t like machines. Now that there are table games here, I’ll play.”
The Marcuses’ three-day pilgrimage had taken them across a region suddenly awash in slot parlors and Las Vegas-style casinos, what with New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Pennsylvania getting in on the action. And the competition between the gambling halls is growing fiercer.
Mount Airy, the working-class resort once known for its red heart-shaped bathtubs, is one of three dozen combatants in a market where the only way to survive is by taking customers from a rival.
New Jersey is so worried about a $1 billion drop in annual revenue at its 11 Atlantic City casinos that Gov. Chris Christie proposed a state takeover of the gambling district and a large cash infusion to rejuvenate the beachfront resort.
New York already has electronic slot machines at eight racetracks, including the Yonkers and Monticello raceways, and is trying to get another gambling hall up and running in the biggest market of all: New York City, at the crumbling Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. And the Shinnecocks of eastern Long Island recently won federal recognition as an Indian tribe, allowing them to open a casino, as the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes of Connecticut did.
So Pennsylvania authorized the introduction of table games last month at its thriving slot machine parlors, a move that officials hope will bring even more gamblers and tax revenue to the state. In the year ending June 30, Pennsylvania collected nearly $1.2 billion in slot machine taxes, 23.4 percent more than in the previous 12 months.
Jimmy and Lana Ting go to Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut or Atlantic City three times a month. But on opening day for table games at Mount Airy, they boarded a special gamblers’ bus in Flushing, Queens, for the trip to the Poconos. “It’s closer,” said Mr. Ting, who favors Pai Gow, or double-hand poker.
George Toth, chief executive of the Mount Airy casino, said the initial response to the table games, which opened on July 13, was overwhelming. The waiting list for the poker room was two hours long, the restaurants served 5,500 dinners one night and the parking lot was full of cars with New York and New Jersey license plates. Even the slot machines were getting more action: they began bringing in 20 percent more revenue once the table games began, Mr. Toth said.
Mr. Toth is spending $2 million on an advertising campaign in New York City including television, billboards and taxis to lure customers to the wooded hillside casino 90 miles from Manhattan. The resort’s owner has invested more than $450 million in a new 188-room hotel with two white-tablecloth restaurants, an 18-hole golf course, a spa and the casino.
“The vast majority of our customers will go to the closest casino, unless you give them an experience that exceeds their expectations,” Mr. Toth said.
There were mostly older women playing the slot machines during a recent stroll through the casino, and mostly men jostling for spots at the blackjack tables. The median age of the gamblers plunged in the poker room, where only one woman sat among a sea of younger men.
Jeff Jones, a landscaper from nearby Nazareth, had been bringing his mother to Mount Airy to play the slots. But now he, too, is playing, at the roulette table. “Everyone says they’re broke,” said Mr. Jones, 40, as he raked in his winnings, $875 on a $25 bet. “But they’re all here now.”
The Mount Airy that spawned the once-ubiquitous jingle
“We can play all day and dance all night at beautiful Mount Airy Lodge” dated from 1898, when an eight-room inn was built on the site. It was reconstructed as the Mount Airy Lodge in the 1950s, with nearly 900 rooms. There was swimming and paddle boats at a 36-acre artificial lake, hiking, golf and skiing in the winter.
For 50 years, working- and middle-class couples from New York and New Jersey flocked to the resort, with its mirrored ceilings and famous tubs. Vic Damone, Joey Bishop, Phyllis Diller and Pat Boone were just a few of the celebrities who performed in the Crystal Room in their prime. In a throwback to Mount Airy’s heyday, Mickey Rooney was the headliner the first weekend after the opening of the table games.
By the late 1990s, the Lodge had grown frayed and tired-looking as its customers moved on to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and Caribbean cruises. Overwhelmed by $29 million in overdue mortgage payments, one of the founders, Emil Wagner, shot himself to death rather than face foreclosure. The Lodge finally closed its doors in 2001.
Mr. Toth referred to the Mount Airy Casino Resort as “the House that Louis built,” a reference to Louis DeNaples, the landfill and junkyard king who bought the property in 2004. Mr. DeNaples demolished the old buildings and began pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the resort.
He also brought a whiff of old-time Las Vegas in 2008 when he was indicted on perjury charges. Prosecutors said he lied about whether he knew local organized crime figures during testimony before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. The charges were subsequently dropped, after Mr. DeNaples agreed to turn the property over to his daughter Lisa.
Mr. DeNaples threw out a pair of ceremonial dice at the craps table on July 13, but he did not speak to reporters.
In any event, the DeNapleses have learned just how competitive the gambling business has become. When Mount Airy reopened in 2007, there was already a slot parlor to the northwest in Wilkes-Barre. So Mount Airy marketed to the east, cutting into the revenue at Monticello’s slot parlor, and to the south, including Bethlehem and Allentown.
But last year, the Sands casino opened 34 miles away at the old Bethlehem steelworks. By the end of the fiscal year, Mount Airy’s slot revenues were down 14 percent.
For now, Mount Airy is the only casino in Pennsylvania with a hotel. But the Sands plans to open one next year. And gamblers tend to be a fickle group.
Asked if he would return to Mount Airy, Leung Yiuwah, a double-decker bus driver from Brooklyn, hesitated. “It depends on my luck,” he said with a grin. “I have a lot of choices. The competition is very great.”