In a time when legendary names of the gaming industry are struggling to survive mountainous debt, scrambling to reach agreements with bondholders and creditors, and trying to cut costs wherever possible, what’s an operator to do?
For Cannery Casino Resorts, the answer is simple: Open a new casino.
Cannery last month opened a new jewel in the crown recently passed over by, well, Crown. Fresh off the collapse of the company’s proposed buyout by Australia’s Crown Ltd.-a deal that ended up rosy for Cannery, which got a substantial equity investment from the Australian operator-Cannery opened the 350,000-square-foot permanent casino facility at its Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington County, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh.
Despite the economy, this one was a good bet. The temporary slot facility opened in June 2007 at the Meadows had been packed for the entire time it was open. Its 1,800 slots averaged $20 million a month, and for its last complete month, slot win was 20 percent over the same month a year ago.
The recession, in fact, has not affected Pennsylvania’s nascent slot industry anything like it has the industry overall. Pennsylvania casinos have logged double-digit growth every month of this most dismal of years for the rest of the industry, and have recorded nearly $300 a day in per-machine win.
Western Pennsylvania, though, has proven particularly recession-proof when it comes to the insatiable appetite for the slots among the locals. In fact, the Meadows’ proximity to the border of West Virginia, where players flock to both slots and tables that are less than an hour’s drive away, has not been an issue for either this racetrack casino or for those West Virginia racinos.
“This is a great area for gaming,” says Michael Graninger, vice president and general manager of the Meadows. “It’s booming. A couple of months ago, we had a record day in our place, and the racino in Wheeling (West Virginia) had a record day on the same day. That means the market is gigantic here.”
Graninger says the only problem for the temporary casino was a lack of capacity. “There were two people for every machine and three cars for every parking spot,” he says.
That problem was solved April 15, when the doors opened on a beautiful new casino that has double the slot capacity of the temporary facility. By the time the last of the slots from the temporary facility joined all the new games, the Meadows offered 3,700 slots-the most in Pennsylvania.
The new casino hit the ground running. Two days before the grand opening, a crowd of 10,000 invited guests clogged the highway leading to the Meadows for a charity test day of the new casino (required by the state Gaming Control Board to give regulators a chance to view the systems in place). “We invited everybody we knew to that, to raise money for the volunteer fire departments of Washington County,” says Graninger. “Everybody we invited showed up!”
The test day turned out to be a record-setter, raising $264,000 for the local fire departments-the most money ever raised on a test day in Pennsylvania.
It was a fitting prelude to what is yet another milestone in a big year for Cannery Casino Resorts-a second grand opening within the space of seven months. It was only August 2008 that the operator opened the Eastside Cannery on the Boulder Strip in Las Vegas.
“This is a tremendous event for us,” said CCR principal Bill Wortman as hundreds of customers streamed through the doors of the Meadows on opening day, applauding as they walked. “We’re very, very proud of this product. At the end of the day, this is as big a anything we’ve done under the Cannery brand.”
Wortman, who, with partner Bill Paulos, heads Cannery Resorts through parent company Millennium Gaming, says he has absolutely no trepidations about introducing a new product in the middle of such a difficult economic period.
“The truth is, we’ve now opened two products in this economy. Eastside is doing fine, and we expect this to do extremely well in this marketplace. We’re not concerned, and we know things are going to get better from a general economic standpoint… And we have a top-flight product ready when they do.”
Vegas at the Track
That top-flight product is another Cannery gem, and another property that demonstrates the operator’s uncanny ability to produce a quality product at a minimum of cost. The new casino’s quality matches just about any existing facility, particularly in the racino market. Yet, it was completed for only $175 million, a fraction of what most new gaming halls cost.
It’s the standard M.O. for the operator, which completed Eastside Cannery last year for $250 million.
“What we try to do is get value for what we build,” says Wortman. “Everyone who comes in here shakes their heads and says, ‘How did you build this property for that price?’ We believe we get real value.”
The cost is all the more surprising when one looks at the facility, which masterfully executes a dual design theme. The main slot floor has a classic Vegas theme, with elegant, soft lighting and high ceilings over the sea of slot machines and electronic table games. (There are even large color portraits of the Las Vegas Cannery casinos at the entryway.) Go to the back of the casino floor, though, and you realize how this Vegas design melds seamlessly into the standardbred racetrack, and the racing theme that has been this property’s identity for 45 years.
David Climans, principal of project architect Climans Green Liang, says the combination of Las Vegas and the harness racing theme is what distinguishes the Meadows from other racinos.
“The integration of the racing and gaming is something you don’t see in very many tracks to this degree,” Climans says. “The track was an integral part of the design. We integrated all of the components. It was one of the main objectives, to make the racing and gaming somewhat seamless. The main bar and main restaurants have a beautiful view of the track, but also have a view back into the casino. It’s intended to maximize the synergies among all the various components.”
Climans, whose firm specializes in racino design, adds that the project has accomplished a classic casino design inside a building that does not look like a casino from the outside, where residential neighborhoods dot the surrounding southwestern Pennsylvania hills.
“From the outside, it was important to us to blend in with the overall landscape and the community,” Climans says. “We were sensitive to the fact that we’re within a residential community here, and I think we’ve achieved our objective. It’s got a good presence, but at the same time it’s very respectful of the neighborhood.”
The Meadows offers thousands of the newest slots in every different game style. Most of the major slot manufacturers are represented on the expansive floor, with rows of games separated by wide aisles. At the center of the floor in the back is an “electronic pit” made up of seven Shuffle Master “Table Master” electronic table games. (Each is a five-seat table in front of a life-size video “dealer.”) Included are blackjack and specialty poker games like Let It Ride and Three Card Poker, in a setup that appears it could be easily replaced by a live pit when the state eventually legalizes live table games, as is expected.
“There is no specific theme on the inside; it’s just tasteful, timeless design with very large forms that are proportional to the overall expanse of the space,” says Climans of the main casino floor. “All of the components are visually accessible from anywhere within the facility. Even though it’s so large, you’ve got great sight lines to all the components.”
The “e-pit” leads to an elevated central sports bar and lounge. Called “Pacers,” it offers a view of the harness track through large windows behind the bar.
Pacers is at the center of a casino section that features the racetrack. To the right is a food court offering five outlets, including Franks for specialty hot dogs, Cibos homemade pizza, the Peppers deli, a Perks gourmet coffee shop and Cookies hand-dipped ice cream. Guests eat near floor-to-ceiling windows facing the racetrack.
On the second floor, the new facility features several VIP “Super Boxes” overlooking the track for private parties, as well as a state-of-the-art simulcast area. The property’s high-end restaurant also is on the second floor. Bistecca, an Italian steakhouse, was created by renowned Pittsburgh chef Greg Alauzen. Gourmet dishes are served in an elegant setting complete with private dining rooms, a bar, and a terrace for outdoor dining overlooking the races during warm months.
Facing the track on the casino level are the Terrace Café, featuring classic American cuisine along with international fare-Italian, Southwest, Greek, and Creole join local and regional specialties-and Delvins, featuring casual track-side dining.
By the end of this month, the Meadows will unveil its last and perhaps most unique offering, a 24-lane bowling center complete with a lounge and a restaurant offering its own full-service specialty menu.
“I think this is the best racino facility in America,” says Wortman. “This is a spectacular facility. It presents our customers with something they have not seen before. The comments we got on opening day and with our test session were extraordinary. I think what we’ve done is we’ve over-delivered, and in so doing, we have positioned ourselves well into the future. This facility offers so many different entertainment options, it puts us in the dominant position in this entire marketplace.”
“Today is the culmination of nearly five years of hard work by so many people,” said Paulos, Wortman’s longtime partner in Cannery, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “The Meadows is among the finest gaming facilities on the East Coast. By fully integrating horse racing and gaming, while adding great restaurants, live entertainment and an all-ages bowling center, we have created a true entertainment destination that everyone can enjoy. This shows how a community and region can benefit when private enterprise, local government leaders and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board work as partners.”