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Rolling Rivers

Pittsburgh's Rivers Casino breaks new ground for gaming facilities in Pennsylvania

Rolling Rivers

The people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are a loyal bunch. You can travel the country and not find people who are more devoted to their community, their city, certainly their sports teams.

That’s why, when it became apparent that Pittsburgh would host a casino, it was obvious to everyone that a sparse slot barn or typical glitzy neon palace would not do. It would have to be something special, and it would have to honor the local culture and history of this former steel town and its people.

Last month, it became clear that the city’s sole casino would do just that, with the opening of the Rivers Casino.

The Rivers Casino originated with an application from Detroit developer Don Barden in 2006, one of three for the Pittsburgh license. Initially, it seemed the least likely to win.

First of all, the proposed site was in the North Shore neighborhood, on the Ohio River right next to Heinz Field, home of the beloved world-champion Steelers, and near the Pittsburgh Pirates’ PNC?Park. The Rooney family, Steelers owners, came out early against the plan. Opponents decried the potential traffic nightmares that would ensue from a casino in close proximity to both major sports stadiums. (The concerns would eventually prove baseless.)

Secondly, its location would make the casino a prominent part of a Pittsburgh skyline that many view as one of the nation’s most beautiful-a clean, attractive riverside cityscape that is a far cry from Pittsburgh’s historic “Smoky City” identity. Local “skyline watchdog” groups sprang up to oppose the project.

Finally, most of the early money was on the bid of Isle of Capri Casinos, which had promised to create a sports and entertainment complex that included a new arena for another beloved Pittsburgh world-champion sports team, the NHL’s Penguins. Barden’s bid was not even the second choice of most-Harrah’s had partnered with a Cleveland developer to bid on another riverfront location, the historic former railroad station-turned-retail complex called Station Square.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board picked Barden’s bid, and board members were roundly criticized for the choice.

Last month, they were vindicated.

They were vindicated by the grand opening of what is arguably the most attractive casino complex yet to open in the Keystone State. The $780 million facility, a masterpiece of modern casino design, opened at noon on Sunday, August 9 to a salvo of fireworks, confetti and streamers. Customers had waited for hours in sweltering heat to be the first to sample what is Pennsylvania’s first urban casino-on the outside, a sleek, silver structure that blends seamlessly into the riverside cityscape; on the inside, a first-class, 150,000-square-foot slot floor (only 120,000 square feet are used for the first phase) with beautiful, riverfront restaurants and many elements no other Pennsylvania slot house has yet offered.

“Are you ready, Pittsburgh? Because this is your casino!” Rivers President Ed Fasulo told the crowd of gamblers anxious to be the first in the doors. “It’s been a long couple of years, but our casino is ready. All it needs is people inside!”

The people were more than ready to comply, shouting out “Open the doors!” as a parade of local dignitaries and executives of the casino’s parent company got up to the podium to speak.

One of those speakers was Barden, the original licensee for what had been planned as the Majestic Star-the brand of Barden’s Midwest riverboat casino. The “long couple of years” to which Fasulo referred was particularly long for Barden, who viewed the Pittsburgh casino as his masterpiece, bringing in distinguished casino designers like architect Bergman Walls and interior designers Cleo Design and Floss Barber (see page 40) to create a facility that would make the most of a prime riverfront location.

Then came the recession.

Barden had arranged the majority of the financing, but the last portion of the package fell through. The developer saved the project by surrendering his majority ownership of the casino to an investment group headed by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm, who provided the remainder of the financing and, through Acquisitions Holdings Company, the casino arm of Bluhm’s Lamb Partners corporation, purchased the majority of the equity in the project.

Greg Carlin, CEO of Acquisitions Holdings, made a few changes to the design, but left Barden’s vision largely intact. He also retained Fasulo, a well-respected 40-year casino operations veteran, as the property’s president.

Barden, who retained 20 percent equity and is thus still a major stakeholder in the casino, thanked Bergman-Walls and the rest of the design and contracting team for “making my dream come true. This is a world-class facility, as I promised.”

In an interview with GGB, Barden, who also is on the casino’s three-member board of directors, added, “No one can take away the legacy and our contribution here, no matter what. I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of this casino.”

Local Color
The Rivers Casino opened with the maximum start-up contingent of 3,000 slots. (The casino can petition regulators for another 1,000 next year; and for another 1,000, bringing the facility to the maximum 5,000, in two years.) However, the games-which, Fasulo notes, are the absolute newest games in the business-are only the beginning of the story.

Rivers is designed to play to the local population, and the regional pride of what is, in the end, a huge market. “There are 2.4 million people within a 50-mile radius,” Fasulo says, adding that feeder markets in Ohio like Cleveland, Youngstown and Steubenville are providing an additional boost. “There is tremendous interest from there,” says Fasulo. “I’ve got bus operators calling and telling me players are calling them all the time asking to come here.”

The way you play to the local market in this part of the world? You make them feel at home.

The amenities carry Pittsburgh names: The high-end steakhouse is Andrew’s, in recognition of the city’s famous “Andrews”-Carnegie, Mellon and Warhol. The pizza-and-sandwich stop is called the West End Café, which is a reference to the West End Bridge, a stone’s throw from the casino. (The place offers a complete lineup of local favorites on the menu as well.) The buffet is called the Grand View, which is as much a reference to the panoramic river view out the windows as it is to Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington, which, as any Pittsburgher will
tell you, offers the best possible views of the cityscape from a string of hilltop restaurants.

“We’ve positioned ourselves as Pittsburgh’s casino,” Fasulo says. “Because of the loyal nature of the people here-they’re very patriotic, they love their teams-I thought if I could tap into that loyalty, it would be a great way to position ourselves.” But the need to please the local community goes way beyond basic marketing. According to Fasulo, institutions like the Carnegie Science Center, the Riverlife Task Force riverfront development group and the sports teams, all dead-set against the casino early on, have been won over.

“Once we had them over and gave them tours, they said, ‘Wow, this is a lot better than I thought.’ We spent a lot of money on our riverfront landscaping. It’s the best-looking damn place anywhere along the river. Once we showed them, they were on board. When they see what we have-the workmanship, the quality restaurants-it changes their minds dramatically.

“We’ve convinced most of them we’re not the bad guys,” Fasulo says. “We want to be business partners in the community. We don’t want to be looked at as those casino guys across the river. We’re part of Pittsburgh. We want to be part of everything this city has to offer.”

First Team
The riverfront location and quality of the facility are not the only positives Rivers inherited from Barden. Carlin wisely kept the top executives hired by Barden-chief among them Fasulo, a seasoned casino veteran whose first job was F&B director at the International in Las Vegas when the property opened in 1969 (he used to open the kitchen up for Elvis Presley’s snack time).

Between then and now, he ran the Four Queens in Las Vegas, took the Playboy in Atlantic City to solvency as the Atlantis before selling it to Donald Trump, helped plan and design the Palms for the Maloof family in Las Vegas, headed Ameristar Council Bluffs and worked as a consultant for the Barona tribe in California. When Barden tapped  him to head up the Pittsburgh project, he says, two things appealed to him. “One was that it was a ground-up project; I’ve done a couple,” he says. “The other was that you get to create the culture of a place.”

That culture is “openness and candor; very team-member oriented and friendly,” says Fasulo, who calls himself an old-time “MBWA” operator-for “manage by walking around.” At Rivers, the “walking around” part is often spent greeting employees by name, and making sure everyone is happy-Fasulo’s philosophy is that his employees are the most vital key to success in this business.

“I talk to them daily about how ‘you team members are our key differentiating factor,'” Fasulo says. “I bring my executive team to every orientation we have for new team members-my entire management team, 18 of us. Each member of the management team says something. It’s a personal introduction. Whether you’re an EVS or a pot washer in the kitchen, you get greeted by the general manager, five VPs and 14 directors. That’s got to make an impact. We start talking right then and there about how important they are, and how we rely on them to differentiate ourselves.”

This attitude is more than just words. Fasulo commandeered a prime riverfront spot originally pegged for an Italian restaurant and transformed it into what’s got to be one of the nicest employee cafeterias in the business. “For us to differentiate ourselves, I’ve got to keep these folks happy!” he says.

First at Rivers
The amazing employee cafeteria is one of several tweaks Carlin and Fasulo made after the ownership change, and it’s also one of several first-in-Pennsylvania features of the Rivers Casino.

The Grand View Buffet is another one. It is the first full, Vegas-style buffet restaurant to be offered by a Pennsylvania casino-it offers five international food stations, along with the same killer river view as the gourmet steakhouse.

Other firsts can be found on the casino floor. Chief among them is a riverside VIP lounge for the highest of high rollers. “There wasn’t a VIP room in the plans,” Fasulo says. “At my last two properties, Ameristar and Barona, we had a VIP room, and they can be very successful if used correctly. It’s a very high-end room, designed along the lines of a traditional, private country club.”

There is a standing fireplace, a great view of the property’s riverside amphitheater, and complimentary food and beverages. Membership is restricted to the top 800-1,000 players in the casino’s player’s club, as evaluated every six months.

And the name? Club 446. The number comes from the fact there are 446 bridges in Allegheny County. “It’s a great conversation piece!” says Fasulo.

Another first for Pennsylvania is a full high-limit slot room, also conceived by Fasulo. It’s an elegant, 120-machine room that includes the state’s only $500-denomination slot machine. “I’ve got the best VIP room in the state,” Fasulo says. “There are a couple of small ones in the eastern part of the state, but nothing like this.”

The high-limit room is right next to Club 446, and next to another Fasulo addition, the electronic table game pit. It includes not only the virtual blackjack that every other Pennsylvania casino has, but the first IGT MP virtual roulette game in the state.

Among the other features added by Carlin and Fasulo are the Levels Bar and the Wheelhouse sports bar, coming in October. According to Fasulo, Levels was created because Carlin wanted a bar open to the casino to replace Barden’s original vision of a private bar closed off from the action by drapes. It has several different levels of seating, all offering different views of the casino action. Wheelhouse will be a classic sports bar overlooking Heinz Field, to open in the thick of football season. Fasulo says there is space on the second floor above the bar that will allow it to transform into a nightclub after dark.

Another F&B creation of Fasulo is Ciao, an elegant Italian bistro off the casino floor that offers wine by the ounce-bottles ranging from $20 to $200 are lined up, so customers don’t have to break the bank to try the finest vintage.

The most iconic F&B feature of Rivers, though, has to be the Drum Bar. Included in Barden’s original plan, the Drum Bar is a circular bar overlooking the river. After Cleo Design conceived the interior, it subcontracted the bar’s central feature-a multi-story, conical display that can be seen from across the river-to legendary sign producer YESCO. The sign-maker provided a fully computerized display, that can change its appearance with the seasons.

In all, Rivers is a gem of a facility, particularly given the high cost of doing business in Pennsylvania. Not only does the 55 percent tax rate take its toll; the new owners are keeping every commitment made initially by Barden. That means $7.5 million a year for seven years to help pay for the Penguins’ new arena, as well as $6 million a  year to help out the distressed Hill District neighborhood-plus a generous package for the employees that includes a 100 percent match of the first 3 percent of salaries going to a 401K plan.

Barden will get over the cost through aggressive marketing, he says, using what he considers the best of Pennsylvania rules-no tax on free play-to reward loyal players. He notes that the slot system being used-Konami’s KCMS-makes it easy because it allows both downloads and uploads of promotional credits right at the slot machine. Rivers is the largest casino yet to install the Konami system, which Fasulo says is among the most reliable he’s ever seen. (And he’s seen a few.)

Throw in some classic Atlantic City-style bus marketing, and Fasulo says he will get the word out about what he considers the best casino in Pennsylvania, and one that’s on par with any in the industry.

“Even though there are 2.4 million people in the market, they can just as easily drive an hour in the other direction,” Fasulo says. “We’ve got to make sure they come here.”   

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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