Undaunted by the pandemic, Philadelphia’s second casino is set to finally open its doors

Sixteen years after the state authorized two casinos in Philadelphia, the city’s second casino is finally ready to open — though the timing, amid a historic pandemic that has devastated entertainment venues, could be more auspicious.

The Live! Casino and Hotel Philadelphia, a lavish $700 million gaming hall on Packer Avenue in South Philadelphia’s Stadium District, is to hold two six-hour test sessions on Saturday and Sunday by reservation only during which the winnings will go to charity. The casino then plans to open for business starting at 4 p.m. Tuesday, also only by online reservation at www.LivePhillyRSVP.com.

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The official opening is Feb. 11, when reservations will no longer be required. The online reservation system allows the casino to restrict traffic to comply with coronavirus protocols, and also to conveniently encourage patrons to sign up for the casino’s loyalty program.

Live! Casino and Hotel will be the fifth casino in the Philadelphia area to open since Pennsylvania legalized slot machines in 2004. With 2,100 slot machines and 121 table games, the new casino is slightly larger than its crosstown rival, Rivers Casino Philadelphia, but smaller than the Parx Casino in Bensalem, the state’s biggest gambling venue.

State and city officials have embraced legalized gambling as a major center of employment and tax revenue — state and local governments raked in $1.4 billion in tax revenue in the year before the industry was devastated by the coronavirus.

State officials have pressed for a second Philadelphia casino, after an initial license to what was to be called Foxwoods Casino was revoked in 2010, followed by a spirited competition that resulted in the 2014 award to Stadium Casino LLC. The Baltimore firm’s project was then delayed for three years by court challenges.

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The Stadium Casino was built on the site of a Holiday Inn that was demolished to make way for the casino and a new 12-story, 208-room hotel that has sweeping views of the Center City skyline to the north, and the infield of Citizens Bank Park to the south (though the Phillies’ outfielders will mostly be out of view). The synergy with the Stadium District is what attracted the owners, the Cordish Cos., to build on the site.

“We have the ability to not only attract people from Pennsylvania and New Jersey but from a much wider market area,” said Joseph Weinberg, chief executive officer of Cordish Gaming, on a tour Thursday. “This is the only place in the country where you have a major resort casino and four major-league sports teams all in one location, so we think this will really attract people from all over the country to come for sports entertainment and gaming.”

Cordish controls the Live! Casino and Hotel Maryland near Baltimore, as well as two Hard Rock casinos in Florida, along with a number of other real estate and entertainment ventures. In partnership with Comcast, it opened the Xfinity Live! sports-themed entertainment center in the Stadium District in 2012.

Patrons arriving at the Philadelphia casino and hotel’s main Darien Street entrance will be greeted with an overhead video art of floating flowers created by artist Jennifer Steinkamp, displayed in LEDs installed in the ceiling of the covered entrance. “These floating flowers really kind of set the tone for the elegance and excitement of the facility,” Weinberg said.

In the casino lobby, the company has installed an artwork that recalls the famous LOVE sculpture from Center City’s John F. Kennedy Plaza — modifying the Robert Indiana creation as “L!VE” in a singular, branded embrace of a Philadelphia icon.

Weinberg’s tour of the casino was like a Robert Altman tracking shot, a parade of workmen on scissor lifts, gardeners planting shrubbery, engineers adjusting lighting and testing audio, regulators testing slot machines, cleaners polishing chrome, dealers undergoing training at gaming tables, and waiters carrying glistening plates of food out to pose for a photographer. The casino project generated 3,000 construction jobs and will create 2,000 permanent jobs, and it seemed all of them were at work on Thursday.

Despite the pandemic that has knocked out some live entertainment venues and casinos, Weinberg was buoyant Thursday about the casino’s prospects. Construction of the casino was delayed for five weeks during the early COVID-19 lockdown last year, but the contractors made up for lost time, and the doors will open only about three weeks behind schedule.

“It’s a remarkable accomplishment that in the face of what we’ve been dealing with for nine months, we’re actually finally standing up the casino in South Philly,” David M. Barasch, chairman of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, said Wednesday. The casino is expected to generate $100 million in tax revenue for the city in its first five years, including $25 million for the School District of Philadelphia.

The Packer Avenue facility, formally known as Stadium Casino RE LLC, is one of two Pennsylvania gaming outlets owned by Cordish. In November, the company launched the Live! Casino Pittsburgh in a mall near Greensburg, Pa., the first so-called mini-casino to open in Pennsylvania as a satellite operation to the Philadelphia casino.

Both facilities opened during the pandemic and were designed to include coronavirus safety features. In Philadelphia, all 121 table game stations and 2,100 slot machines are equipped with plexiglass separators to keep patrons and dealers at a distance, a standard feature now in casinos. Gamblers walk through a large entryway that discreetly screens for body temperature. The ventilation system exchanges the casino’s air 12 times an hour through filters.

Slot machines are programmed so that when a patron begins to play, adjacent machines are automatically disabled to prevent another player from getting too close. When players are finished with a machine, it automatically shuts down until a casino employee wipes down its surfaces and reactivates it.

“We’re using the technology to create barriers to make sure we have a very safe, clean environment,” he said.

Cordish has partnered with FanDuel to operate its sports-betting operation, which aims to attract fans attending events at the nearby athletic venues. The sportsbook features lounge chairs, loud music, a bar, an eight-player foosball table, and a dizzying array of television screens.

Some amenities are not yet completed, such as a 15,000-square-foot ballroom and event center that can be customized to accommodate meetings or live events with as many as 1,000 guests.

The Live! facility includes numerous bars and restaurants, whose operations have been largely curtailed at other casinos during the coronavirus outbreak.

The dining options include the Prime Rib, a steakhouse previously located in Center City; Sports & Social Philly, a combination sports restaurant, gaming venue, and social lounge; an Asian-themed restaurant, Luk Fu, with karaoke rooms; and the Marketplace, with casual food from Lorenzo and Sons Pizza from South Philadelphia, Sang Kee Noodle Bar & Kitchen from Chinatown, and Termini Brothers Bakery in South Philadelphia.

Weinberg was especially proud of the elevated Center Bar, which provides a panoramic view of the gaming floor and its flashing slot machines, neon signs, chandeliers, and televisions. “It’s a great kind of perch to be able to look out over the whole facility, get a sense of the energy of the place.”

The addition of a fifth casino to the Philadelphia market, especially a new one with the most modern slot machines and amenities, is likely to draw some action away from other properties at a time when the industry has suffered a blow in the last year from the pandemic. A surge in online gaming has offset declines in retail gambling in casinos. But the sparse crowds and COVID restrictions have put a serious crimp in food, beverage, and hotel revenue.

“The addition of another casino in the greater Philadelphia market will be a significant negative for the current operators in the market,” Andrew Zarnett, a debt analyst who covers the gaming industry, said in a 2015 report. Previous openings of new casinos in Philadelphia led to initial declines in gaming revenue at rival properties.

But the opening of a second casino in Philadelphia was ordained by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which in 2004 allotted two licenses to the city.

The Gaming Control Board awarded licenses to SugarHouse Casino in Fishtown, now called Rivers Casino Philadelphia, and to Foxwoods Casino. The group behind Foxwoods lost its license in 2010 because of repeated delays, including stiff opposition from the city, which believed the project did not fit the city’s emerging plans for redeveloping the Central Delaware Waterfront.

A second round of bidding took place, and the gaming board in 2014 awarded the license to Stadium Casino over five other bidders, including two others who targeted the Stadium District.

Crosstown rival SugarHouse Casino challenged the award of the license to Stadium Casino, which was a partnership of Cordish and Greenwood Gaming, which owns the Parx Casino in Bensalem. Stadium Casino eventually prevailed before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2017, but the legal challenge delayed the Stadium project for three years.

In 2018, Cordish bought out Greenwood’s interest in the Stadium project, allowing the Maryland company to put into place its vision for the property. Weinberg said there’s no bad blood with the Parx operators — “they’re great guys” — but the decision to take on the project alone helped accelerate the project to conclusion.

“Look, it’s clearly easier to have one party making a decision and then two, so I think it definitely facilitated being able to go quicker during construction,” he said.

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