The Valley Forge Casino Resort is neither in Valley Forge Park nor, at a glance, a resort. It is, however, impressively busy on a Thursday at 3 p.m. Especially the $15 blackjack tables.
I know this because, unlike politicians who tout gaming spoils as a public panacea, I actually hang around casinos observing the side effects of this so-called miracle drug.
I would never expect elected officials to wager, since so many of them say (publicly or privately) that slots are for suckers. But here they are again in Harrisburg weighing whether to plunk another slots parlor in Philadelphia when anyone who spends any time in the existing casinos could tell them to look elsewhere.
Subtracting Valley Forge's out-of-town conventioneers, all four local casinos compete for the same low-rollers.
BCC — Before Convenience Casinos — these folks spun the wheel once a month in Atlantic City. Now, they're stunning local operators by frequenting hometown haunts three to five days a week.
With rare exceptions, if you're not already taking your chances at Parx, SugarHouse, Harrah's Chester, or Valley Forge, you probably don't gamble anywhere. New players won't materialize overnight just because another neon palace pops up a tad closer than the last one.
Get in the game
Back when he was omnipotent, before he was a federal inmate, then-Sen. Vince Fumo crafted a state law that aimed to place two casinos in Philadelphia and three surrounding the city. Fumo then divvied up the state like a pizza, ensuring that every corner of the commonwealth could enjoy the thrill of learning Texas Hold Em or playing the Sex and the City slots.
Since 2006, 11 Pennsylvania casinos have generated $6 billion in taxes and license fees. Proponents rightly call creating something from nothing a success, though I have yet to meet any regular gambler who can prove she's won more than she's lost. And I'm dying to know whether folks who play nearly every day have saved as much in property-tax relief as they spent on the slots.
Parx and SugarHouse benefitted mightily from the failure of Foxwoods. Harrah's Chester has loyal fans despite being located next to a prison, but is nonetheless seeking a redo: Next week, the expanded casino will be relaunched as "Harrah's Philadelphia" with a concert featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Valley Forge opened in late March. Patrons are urged to buy an exclusive-sounding membership, but I crashed the party just by ordering enough pad thai at the food court to get a one-day access card.
If I had to guess the loudest opposition to a second Philadelphia casino, it would be the people who run SugarHouse and its neighbors. These folks already fought each other in a corporate Hunger Games for the customers they have. More competition will mean less money for everyone.
When more isn't better
Departing State Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester) sponsored the legislation that would put the Foxwoods license up for statewide auction — a market-driven bidding war that could begin at $65 million and end with a casino being built in the city or far, far away.
The bill passed the State House over the outcry of Philadelphia Democrats such as Rosita Youngblood, who would rather talk about casinos creating "family-sustaining jobs" than whether giving struggling city residents even more places to risk the rent is ultimately good for families.
In 2010, a Parx executive stunned listeners at an industry conference by saying that most of the casino's regulars visit up to 200 times a year.
"We have customers," Dave Jonas boasted, "who give us $25, $30 five times a week."
A year later, SugarHouse's Wendy Hamilton told the same gathering that "a large percentage" of her players come "three, four, five times a week." Not to be outdone, Ron Baumann said a "segment" of Harrah's Chester players gamble nearly six times a week.
If Philly-focused pols know those statistics, they remain unfazed about where all that money is going, how it might otherwise have been spent. Even Mayor Nutter, who as a candidate said he did not support gambling as an economic-development tool or to fund ongoing government programs, has vowed to fight yanking the Foxwoods license. To hear some of these officials speak, you'd think a second Philadelphia casino is an inalienable right.
Lost in the tug-of-war over roulette? The fine print of Act 71, the casino law that uses may and shall more often than must.
Nothing in the law requires the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to issue that final license — here, there, or anywhere.