As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to burn across America like a molecular version of a California wildfire, it’s not surprising that optimism appears headed for the endangered-species list.
But in South Philadelphia, hard by Citizens Bank Park, a $700 million monument to that most important of human attitudes is being constructed.
Sometime before the end of March, Live! Casino Hotel Philadelphia will debut as the second gaming hall within the city limits. Located on the south side of Packer Avenue between 10th and Darien streets, the adult playground will open with a full-service casino (including a 29-table, state-of-the-art poker room), a FanDuel-branded sports book and several bars. Its restaurant inventory will include Prime Rib, the steakhouse that had a 22-year-run inside the Warwick Hotel, the Southeast Asia-centric Luk Fu (pronounced “luck foo”), taqueria and burger outlets, both of which will be fronted by restaurateur-cum-TV-star Guy Fieri, and casual-dining concepts from three longtime Philly favorites, Chinatown’s Sang Kee Peking Duck House, Reading Terminal staple Termini Brothers Bakery and Lorenzo and Sons Pizza. As the city’s first casino-hotel complex, it will offer guests 208 luxury rooms and suites in a 12-story tower.
“And so, as we start the first quarter of 2021, we’re very optimistic that each quarter we’ll just continue to track back to a post-pandemic type of atmosphere and feel in the casino.”– Eric Fitzgerald
Despite the toll COVID has taken on bricks-and-mortar casinos in this region and elsewhere (on the other hand, the virus has, unsurprisingly, propelled online gambling revenues to unprecedented heights), and an earlier-in-the-year, coronavirus-imposed cessation of construction that lasted 43 days, scrapping the project was not an option.
“There was never a thought of pulling back,” says Joe Billhimer, executive vice-president of Baltimore-based Cordish Gaming Group, the in-the-works pleasure dome’s majority owner (and co-developer/owner, with Comcast-Spectacor, of Xfinity Live!, the fun-and-games emporium on the site where the Spectrum stood for decades).
“Adding a casino to the already famous sports stadium district is pretty awesome. And we have a lot of folks that are planning on careers with us – there are thousands of jobs related to this. So, there was never a thought to pull this project.”
While the pandemic caused the property’s opening to be pushed back from the end of this month to sometime in the first quarter of 2021 (a specific date has been targeted but not yet announced), its impact on the city’s existing gaming hall has been far more severe.
In mid-March, Rivers Casino Philadelphia voluntarily closed for four months. The week before Thanksgiving, the City of Philadelphia included the Fishtown gambling den in its list of mandatory restrictions. Its reopening is currently set for New Year’s Day. Nonetheless, the decade-old casino’s top executive shares Billhimer’s confidence in a bright –and profitable – post-COVID world.
“I would say we’re beyond optimistic about the Philadelphia market in particular because of the [impending] vaccine,” offers Eric Fitzgerald, who took over as the riverside facility’s general manager in mid-October.
“We’re excited that by the end of December…I think 15, 20 million people, will have the vaccine and each month [the number of recipients] will get bigger and bigger.
“And so, as we start the first quarter of 2021, we’re very optimistic that each quarter we’ll just continue to track back to a post-pandemic type of atmosphere and feel in the casino.”
However, both casino execs suggest that not everything will return to the way it was in late-February, regardless of a vaccine. Some COVID-inspired safety protocols, they say, will likely be permanent.
“We designed the facility in a way that allows for the future, beyond the pandemic, so people will feel safe.”– Joe Billhimer
“There’s going to be a lot of things that go beyond the pandemic in terms of what we’ve put in place here [including] sanitation stations and our AtmosAir system, which recirculates air through the building 12 times; three times is normal in buildings,” says Billhimer of Live!
“And we’ve implemented a technology in the slot area that allows us to shut machines off for social distancing.”
Billhimer adds that another strategy involves the use of “ticket-in-ticket-out” – or TITO – technology installed at slot machines and table games. The system cuts down on the handling of cash, which has been identified as a major potential source of COVID germs.
“We designed the facility in a way that allows for the future, beyond the pandemic, so people will feel safe,” he says.
And while nothing has yet to be set in stone at Rivers, Fitzgerald believes that some byproducts of the pandemic may very well live on in a COVID-free (or, at least, COVID-controlled) world, among them plexiglass shields separating gamblers and slot machine placement based on social distancing. He says that any decisions will be predicated, at least in part, on customer input.
The belief that the sun will come out tomorrow also has currency among those who run Atlantic City’s nine casinos.
“We feel very bullish on Atlantic City because of the vaccine. It’s going to be a good thing,” says Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, the trade/lobbying arm of the seaside gaming industry.
“We believe that we can have the best summer that we’ve ever had and the best fall that we’ve ever.”
That’s certainly the nine-figure bet a Rhode Island-based company placed when what used to be called Twin River Worldwide Holdings last month closed on its deal to purchase Bally’s Atlantic City.
The company, now known as Bally’s Corp., paid Caesars Entertainment Inc. a bargain-basement price of just $25 million for the 41-year-old, mid-Boardwalk casino-hotel. It intends to invest at least $90 million into a massive rehab project that will see virtually every inch of the property get a makeover, from the entire inventory of more than 1,200 hotel rooms and suites to the spa which, when it opened in 1990, established the template for such high-end facilities throughout the city, but which for years has suffered from neglect.
Elsewhere in town, Callender, a Caesars Entertainment regional president, will oversee some $400 million worth of capital improvements at the gaming conglomerate’s three AyCee casinos – Caesars, Tropicana and Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City. And on a much smaller – but still-significant – scale, Resorts Casino Hotel, the oldest legal gambling operation outside of Nevada, recently announced a partnership with the Dougherty family, which owns two of the city’s most venerated eateries, Dock’s Oyster House and the Knife & Fork Inn. The deal will result in the opening of a new steakhouse next spring.
And Ocean Casino Resort has begun construction on a slot-machine lounge for high-limit players that will feature 140 units, upgraded food-and-drink service and even private restrooms.
Interestingly, the rose-colored view of the future held by executives in this area isn’t necessarily shared in every gambling jurisdiction. Roger Gros, publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry’s leading trade magazine, predicts the pandemic’s forced funneling of business to cyberspace will continue regardless of the vaccine’s ultimate effectiveness.
While he concedes that some casinos elsewhere have successfully adapted to the new world order of operating in the age of COVID, “It’s doubtful the old ‘normal’ will ever return. Many states have seen what the benefits of online gaming has meant to casinos and state tax coffers. The big takeaway from the pandemic will be the quick spread of legal online gaming in states where it currently doesn’t exist. It will benefit casinos, states and gamblers.”
Nonetheless, in this neck of the gambling woods, Live! honcho Billhimer’s view seems to prevail.
“For us to be putting this business together – multiple businesses under one roof – is a big part of the recovery and is something we’re very optimistic about,” he says.
“We’re going to get there.”
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. Follow him on Twitter @chuckdarrow