These days, you won’t see many stories about operators busily building out new properties and looking forward to grand openings. But one operator in the thick of such a scenario is Stadium Casino, the Pennsylvania casino licensee owned by Baltimore-based Cordish Companies.
Stadium Casino is in the midst of finishing construction on two properties in Pennsylvania—the Live! Hotel & Casino Philadelphia and its connected Category 4 satellite licensee, Live! Casino Pittsburgh.
While there were a couple of Covid-19-related fits and starts, both projects are in line to open fairly close to initially projected completion dates.
Cordish Companies has Live! entertainment districts and sports-related attractions around the country, but lately, the brand has appeared on a growing number of gaming properties, headed by the flagship Live! Casino & Hotel Maryland, that state’s largest casino, combined with a hotel and a varied lineup of dining outlets, ranging from celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay to local favorite Phillips Seafood.
The Maryland Live! property, located adjacent to the sprawling Arundel Mills Mall in the center of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, provided a model for Cordish’s subsequent expansion into Pennsylvania.
Cordish has already made a huge investment in Pennsylvania—first, by buying out its original partner in Stadium Casino, Greenwood Gaming and Entertainment. Greenwood, owner of the Parx casino and racetrack in nearby Bensalem, formed the Stadium partnership with Cordish in 2014 to go after the second casino license for the city of Philadelphia. After a fierce competition, the partnership won the license for a $600 million property in the middle of South Philadelphia’s Stadium District, home to all four of the city’s professional sports teams.
According to Joseph Billhimer, senior vice president of Pennsylvania operations for Live! Casino Hotel, Cordish officials had their eyes on the South Philly location for a long time.
“It’s an ideal location, for sure,” Billhimer told GGB News. “We’ll be the only gaming property located in a sports district, with four major-league teams. I’ve been looking at this location and this market for 20-plus years, and we have the ideal location, with I-76 and I-95 nearby, and just great demographics in the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding area.”
Late in 2018, Cordish bought out Greenwood’s stake in Stadium Casino for an undisclosed sum. Last November, Cordish broke ground and began what was estimated to be a year-long construction period.
By the time that groundbreaking took place, Cordish’s second investment in Pennsylvania was already well under way. In January 2018, bidding began for Category 4 casinos, created under Pennsylvania’s 2017 expansion law as satellites to existing casinos in areas currently underserved by gaming. Category 4 casinos, commonly called mini-casinos, are restricted to 750 slot machines and 40 table games.
Stadium Casino won the second satellite casino auction, with a hefty bid of $40.1 million to license a Category 4 casino in the Pittsburgh area, giving the operator coverage in the state’s two largest metropolitan regions.
What will be called Live! Casino Pittsburgh is under construction in the location of a former Bon-Ton anchor store in the Westmoreland Mall, around 30 miles east of Pittsburgh in Hempfield Township, Westmoreland County.
According to Billhimer, Stadium Casino was able to work through Covid-19-related delays to keep both projects moving forward. He says the Pittsburgh project will probably open first. “Our project in Westmoreland is moving along at a great pace; we’re getting into the final straws there,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be looking at an early winter, latter part of this year opening. In Philadelphia, we’re moving along, and looking for an opening sometime in early 2021.”
Billhimer said both projects lost time to the pandemic, but were able to ramp back up quickly. “In Westmoreland, we lost a little bit of time during the initial Covid shutdown, and in Philadelphia, we were able to get a waiver to continue construction,” he said. “But the teams in both projects got ramped up pretty quickly some months back.”
In the end, both projects will open several weeks after the original target dates, with the Philadelphia project set to take advantage of what’s bound to be a better professional sports picture next year.
“As we look toward Philadelphia opening in early 2021, we hope we open in a post-Covid world,” said Billhimer, “but we’re closely monitoring that, and as time goes on, we’ll make appropriate plans. Our No. 1 concern is the safety of our team members and the guests coming through our facility. We’re not going to sacrifice any safety protocols just to get open.
“We’re taking all the safety protocols into consideration as we set up. For Westmoreland, we’re looking very strongly at our Covid-19 safety plans through our Play It Safe program that was established in Maryland. I think it’s been a model of safety and protocol not only for our properties, but for the industry.”
Play It Safe, launched in Maryland in May, is an enhanced health and sanitation program that allows for ample social distancing, reduced occupancies and vigorous hygiene and health measures for all guests and employees. Capacity is limited by disabling slot machines, all gaming chips and furniture is sanitized constantly, and hand sanitizer stations are located throughout the property.
Looking to Open
As Stadium Casino puts the finishing touches on what will be a 100,000-square-foot casino at Westmoreland Mall, Billhimer predicts customers will be surprised at the finished product when it’s unveiled in the fall.
“You won’t recognize that it’s a former Bon-Ton,” Billhimer said. “We’ve put together all the elements of a proper casino. We don’t even use the term ‘mini-casino’ internally in our day-to-day dialogue.”
He added that Cordish knows a thing or two about operating gaming near a mall. “Our Maryland Live! casino is adjacent to a mall, so we’re pretty adept at understanding mall traffic, and the amenity set to build within that environment,” he said. “And (at Westmoreland), we have a great location, with a great community around us. We’re looking forward to folks seeing what a Category 4 facility can look like.”
As in Philadelphia, the location will be a key to success in Westmoreland, said Billhimer. “It’s about 30 miles from the center of Pittsburgh. It’s an area where most people identify with as being from Pittsburgh. I’ve spent a great deal of time there; it’s a fantastic area. Westmoreland draws from east, west and south, so it should do very, very well.”
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Live! FanDuel sportsbook is set to open before the brick-and-mortar facility is complete. “It’s a fantastic partnership with FanDuel, and it gave us the ability to launch the sportsbook ahead of the bricks-and-mortar being done,” Billhimer said. “We’re looking forward to that, and looking forward to the restart of sports throughout the U.S.”
Billhimer credits his entire team for bringing both Pennsylvania projects to fruition. “We have some tremendous partners in our construction team, who go through the hoops to maintain the safety protocols that are necessary to continue construction in these unprecedented times,” he said.
Cordish isn’t done in Pennsylvania. The operator indicated it will bid on the Category 4 license in Big Beaver, near the Ohio border, which was vacated when original holder Mount Airy was unable to secure financing. “We’re excited to explore the opportunity to bid on the Category 4 license that will be available in September, and the potential to invest further and create more jobs in the commonwealth,” Billhimer said.
The auction will be held September 2, with an opening bid of $7.5 million. Stay tuned.