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'Lady Luck' on Nemacolin's side

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Friday, April 15, 2011

HARRISBURG -- Nemacolin Woodlands Resort on Thursday won the right to the state's last resort casino license and will build a $50 million casino dubbed "Lady Luck" in Fayette County.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board's 6-1 vote selecting Nemacolin for the $5 million slots license felt like winning a Super Bowl, said Joseph A. Hardy III, the lumber executive who founded Nemacolin. The board will award the license after other bidders exhaust any appeals.

"I'd like to be able to jump, but I can't," said a jubilant Hardy, 88, whose daughter, Maggie Hardy Magerko, is president and owner of the world-class resort. The resort would convert and expand a building along Route 40 that housed a family entertainment center called The Wild Side for the casino, said Jeff Nobers, a Nemacolin spokesman.

Nemacolin would team with Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., which operates 15 casinos across the country and lost an earlier bid to build one in Pittsburgh. Isle of Capri would pay for the construction of the casino, which by law must be smaller than full stand-alone and racetrack casinos. Lady Luck is expected to offer 600 slot machines and 28 table games, although the law allows up to 50.

"It won't take over the resort," Hardy said. "It will just fit in."

The casino would employ 400, and the resort would add another 200 jobs to accommodate the increased traffic, said Jill Haynes, senior director of communications for Isle of Capri. She said the project would create 150 temporary construction jobs.

The seven-member control board, composed of political appointees by the governor and legislative leaders, chose Nemacolin over Mason Dixon Resort near Gettysburg, the West Shore casino near Harrisburg, and Fernwood Resort & Casino in the Poconos. Several board members said all were good projects.

"The issue becomes one of discretion," said board member Gary A. Sojka of Snyder County.

Board Chairman Gregory C. Fajt of Mt. Lebanon said Nemacolin epitomizes "what the Legislature intended when they drafted the legislation for the award of two resort licenses."

After a legal battle that began in 2009, the state Supreme Court last month upheld the board's decision to award the other resort license to Valley Forge Convention Center.

The 2004 slots law allowed such a license for a "well-established resort hotel" with at least 275 rooms. Nemacolin has 335 rooms, suites and guest houses on 2,000 acres. Amenities include the Woodlands Spa and two golf courses.

"We have great occupancy to pull from," Magerko said. "We pull from all over the country."

Construction would begin immediately after the board formally grants a license and take about nine months. The board will issue a written opinion in several weeks, after which losing applicants have 30 days to appeal.

If no one appeals, or when appeals are resolved, Isle of Capri must pay the licensing fee to operate slot machines. It must separately petition to operate table games and, if approved, would pay an additional $7.5 million, said Doug Harbach, the board's press secretary. Those anticipated fees are part of the $50 million project cost, Haynes said.

Board member Kenneth J. Trujillo, an appointee of former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, voted against Nemacolin. A Philadelphia lawyer, Trujillo said he would have voted for the Fernwood Resort & Casino. He said the Poconos and surrounding area have more population from which to draw gamblers than Western Pennsylvania. Penn National would have been a good operator of that project, he said.

"Thank you, thank you," shouted Gettysburg residents opposed to building a casino near the battlefield, after the board's vote. Mason Dixon argued its location was better than Nemacolin's because of its proximity to Baltimore and Washington, but spokesman David La Torre said he did not know whether Mason Dixon will appeal.

Spokesman Kevin Feely said the West Shore casino group is disappointed, but it's too early to say whether it will appeal. Fernwood's spokeswoman could not be reached.

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