Stu Bykofsky | Feeling lucky? Head to Chester
The gray winter morning that sent you to a thankless job in a drab office sent me to a Disney-happy place filled with warm greetings, wide smiles and new-car smells.
I'm at Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack, a few miles south of the airport, to get a glimpse of gaming in Pennsylvania. Someday, Harrah's casino will be joined by two in Philly, also along the broad Delaware.
The state gaming board expects SugarHouse to be ready in April 2008 and Foxwoods in November 2008, but since Councilman Frank DiCicco is planning legislative and legal action to stop them on behalf of some NIMBY constituents, who really knows?
Depending on who you believe, Harrah's will:
a) Revitalize doornail-dead Chester by creating jobs and a tax base that draws on more than Boeing and Social Security checks, or
b) Wreck the regional economy by sucking cash into Harrah's bottomless coffers, and further impoverish the poor who (do-gooders say) can't understand - despite their personal experience - that most gamblers lose.
To approach Harrah's you drive along Industrial Highway, picturesque as its name suggests. Billboards would actually beautify the two-mile stretch that takes you to Harrah's Boulevard.
It's hot to have a street named after you, and it gives you a good idea about what money can buy. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Ask Donald Trump.
The entrance is a huge hall centered by an escalator. The second floor is for horse-race betting, and the third floor is the 100,000-square-foot casino. The boxy, op-art exterior has little flash, a dim echo of what Vegas always was and what Atlantic City has become. The interior is less gaudy than A.C., with splashes of neon. No gold elephants. No platinum blondes.
Unlike Philly, there are no cranky neighbors and Harrah's already has created 800 permanent jobs and promises Chester $10 million a year in taxes. It is already siphoning business from A.C. (and Delaware Park). Because it's easy to reach and is not choking on traffic, it should thrive even after the Philly casinos open.
Unannounced, I walk through the mammoth casino floor and enjoy the sights and gay xylophone sounds. I talk to some gamblers. (If you ask for permission to interview customers, as I later did, Harrah's handcuffs you to an "escort," and not the kind that advertises in the back of tabloids.)
The casino was busy, but not crowded, with the bulk of the players over 50. Some were well over 50, but it was a work day. Most were there alone.
I wondered if Social Security checks were being spent here, but didn't see anyone who looked like their breakfast had been a pouch of Whiskas cat food.
I catch up with Mike Ziegler, enjoying an 11 a.m. eye-opener and a smoke at the circular bar in the middle of the casino floor. (Smoking is permitted.)
A high-pressure water blaster, Ziegler said this is a slow time of year for his business. He's here "because it's new," says Ziegler, wearing a McNabb jersey.
"Not too much brings me to Chester," he says, even though he lives in nearby Tinicum. "Not even the trains stop in Chester."
He enjoys "the fun, the excitement, the people" in casinos. All he expects is a good time. He doesn't expect to win.
"My kids are grown, the house is paid for, I like to mingle," he says.
He's got $500 in his pocket and a strategy in his head. If he loses half, he walks. If he doubles his cash, he walks.
Slot machines - some take as little as a penny (954!), some as much as $100 (4) - have names like Reel 'em In, Ring Quest, Seal the Deal. (Sounds like a singles' bar.)
Some machines' screens are so colorful, crowded and complicated I couldn't figure out what it took to win. I didn't have to. I fed $20 of the boss' money into one and a display told me if I won or lost. After 15 minutes, I had $2. The boss was down $18.
I didn't really know what was happening, but I wasn't the only one.
Janice Belk, 70, just finished at the very popular 5-cent Wheel of Fortune game. A Media resident, the retiree plays three times a month, but never goes "overboard."
Belk sat at the Wheel of Fortune "because of the glitter and all," but couldn't easily explain exactly how it worked.
Doesn't matter, said Belk with a sweet smile, "I'm lucky."
Me, too. I'm at Harrah's, I've got $2 and I'm calling it work. *
Send e-mail to email@example.com or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns: