The first anniversary of Live! Philadelphia Casino-Hotel

CasiNotes: your go-to guide to what is happening at casinos in Philly, Southeastern Pennsylvania and Atlantic City.

Exterior image of the Live! Philadelphia Casino-Hotel
Chuck Darrow

This February marked the first anniversary of Live! Philadelphia Casino-Hotel, the $700 million adult playground located on the northern edge of the South Philly stadium district. And what a year it’s been for the city’s second casino–and first with an attached hotel.

After all, Live! opened in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century. That added a significant set of headaches and issues that the braintrust at Baltimore-based corporate parent Cordish Gaming Group could never have imagined when it successfully landed the coveted gaming license that allowed the company to create the complex.

“I would describe the first year as very challenging but a great success,” offered Joseph Billhimer, executive vice-president of both Philly Live! and its sister property in the Pittsburgh suburbs, during a recent interview.

“If you go back over the last year, we opened this property at the height of the pandemic. We trained all of our [employees] in a virtual environment. But over the course of the year, our team has really solidified and done a tremendous job from a guest-service standpoint.”

That, he reasoned, would have been difficult to achieve under non-pandemic conditions, but the task was made significantly, if not exponentially, tougher by various COVID-borne impediments.

“I think that the challenging part was working through the first four or five months of the property being open without being able to serve drinks on the floor,” said Billhimer of the perk that is a gaming-industry staple. But that was more a result of a larger issue.

“The compliance things we have to go through in Philadelphia, as it relates to the COVID restrictions, are far different than they are in New Jersey or in other [Pennsylvania] counties,” he reasoned. “A lot of our guests come from New Jersey; they have completely different rules there. They go to Atlantic City, they go to other [gambling jurisdictions] and don’t have the restrictions that we have here. So that’s the pain point for us.”

Not surprisingly, Billhimer preferred to accentuate the positive when reviewing the past 12 months. “I think we saw a lot of really good things happen, particularly as we got into the summer and the restrictions went down. We started to see a tremendous increase in visitation,” he said. He added that it just wasn’t the loosening of COVID rules that increased traffic at the gaming hall, but actual amenities and events—specifically those tied to the opening of the Event Center, a multi-use facility that debuted early last fall. They included entertainment offerings and a series of boxing matches showcasing local fighters.

“The boxing has done extremely well, kind of beyond our expectations,” noted  Billhimer. He also cited the casino’s tie-ins with the four neighboring professional sports franchises which he said have proven beneficial in terms of marketing the property.

Billhimer was likewise enthusiastic when discussing the raison d’etre of any casino.

“We continue to make improvements to our [casino] floor with newer slot machines in terms of what the guests want to see,” he said, “and we continue to offer a compelling table-game product.

“But we always look to improve so, hopefully, when guests come back, they see new things they’ve have asked for in the past.”

While it may not be as fun or as glamorous as gambling options or boxing matches and concerts, Billhimer made it a point to include in his assessment of his property’s first year its relationship with the surrounding community.

As was the case when Rivers Philadelphia Casino in Fishtown (which opened in 2010 under the Sugarhouse brand), Live! took seriously the concerns of neighbors who would conceivably be impacted by the 24-7 nature of a casino and what transpires under its roof. Thus was crafted a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with which Live! pledged to be active in the nearby neighborhoods. Posted on its website is a page headlined, “Commitment to the Community.” The text reads, in part:

Through sponsorship, donation of goods and in-kind services, and volunteerism, we generously support a variety of deserving charitable organizations and programs that promote diversity, community development, human services, environmental protection, and responsible gaming.

“We push money into the community for various projects,” said Billhimer. “We have a great relationship with the five neighborhoods [covered by the agreement]. It’s something we’re pretty proud of.”

Bally’s beer garden okayed

Bally’s Atlantic City recently received approval from the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority for a year-round, outdoor beer garden.

According to The Press of Atlantic City, the 5,100-square-foot, Boardwalk-fronting saloon will replace Harry’s Oyster’s Bar on the expanse of lawn that separates what was once the Dennis Hotel (now part of Bally’s) and the Great Wood Way. Removable glass walls will allow operations during the colder months of the year.

An opening date has not been announced, but it’s safe to assume the taps will be flowing sometime between Memorial Day and July Fourth, if not sooner.

Legs N’ Eggs

Sunday will see the debut of what will be a monthly series of drag events at Rivers Casino Philadelphia.

The Legs N’ Eggs Drag Brunch, which will be staged the last Sunday of every month, features a cast of female impersonators offering takes on such superstars as Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The bill of fare includes eggs, sausage, French toast, potatoes, juice, coffee and teas well as Bloody Marys and “endless” mimosas to slake one’s thirst.

$2m jackpot hit at Nugget

A New Jersey man recently had a pretty good day at Golden Nugget Atlantic City. The gambler, identified only as Dave J, bet $6 on one spin of a Penny Monopoly Money Grab machine. For his troubles, he received a cool progressive jackpot of $2,839,342.89.

There was no word on what he planned to do with the money once he stopped celebrating.

Greetings

Welcome to CasiNotes, which we hope will become your go-to guide to what is happening at casinos in Philly and the rest of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Atlantic City, and, when merited, beyond.

Each column will do its best to keep you informed about what’s going on in entertainment, dining, special events and gambling. If you want to contact me, please feel free to do so: chuck@philadelphiaweekly.com

See you at the casinos!

    • Chuck Darrow headshot

      Chuck Darrow has spent more than four decades as a writer and broadcaster specializing in covering the Philadelphia region's arts, entertainment and casinos. He is still afraid he may one day have to work for a living. 

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