Local businesses awaiting payout from Fayette County casino
By Liz Zemba
Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
In the two months since a casino opened 5 miles from the Chalk Hill Market on Route 40 in Wharton, owners Ed and Tina Harris have seen a lot more traffic on the two-lane highway that fronts their business in Fayette County.
They don't know whether the vehicles are ferrying gamblers to Lady Luck Casino at Nemacolin, but the couple is certain most of the drivers are not stopping at their store, where players could snag last-minute sundries such as cigarettes before hitting the slots and gaming tables.
“For us to have actually picked up business, it has not worked,” Tina Harris said from behind the cash register as she rang up an ice cream cone for one of the regulars who comprise most of the store's business. “We see a lot of traffic, but not for our store.”
The Lady Luck opened on July 1 with a Category 3 casino license. Operated by Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., it has 600 slot machines and 28 table games.
Gamblers have pumped $50 million into slot machines at the casino during its first seven weeks of operation, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. The bets generated gross terminal revenue of $3.9 million for the casino, $1.3 million in state taxes and $157,385 in taxes for the county and township.
A partnership between Isle of Capri and Nemacolin, the casino created 535 jobs. Supporters said they expect it to spur development.
Tourism versus staples
As for bringing customers to shops along the Route 40 corridor near the casino, business owners report mixed results. Those who offer everyday items such as gas said they have not noticed a significant increase in sales.
Those who offer goods related to tourism, including a winery and a restaurant located in a historic building, said sales are up as a result of the casino.
“I've seen more spontaneous sales from off-the-road traffic,” said Sharon Klay, owner of Christian W. Klay Winery. “So, we are getting more exposure to the store on Route 40.”
Jeremy Critchfield, chef at the historic Stone House Restaurant and Inn, said his business picked up, beginning with visits from construction workers who renovated a building for the casino. More recently, patrons include tourists who want to gamble but not necessarily dine or stay at Nemacolin.
A number of casino employees are regulars, he said, and he and the resort partnered to offer discount packages to drive patrons to the restaurant and the casino.
Wendy Allen, co-owner of Braddock Inn restaurant on Route 40, has not had the same luck. She said although traffic on Route 40 noticeably increased, she had an influx of customers at her restaurant only during the first week the casino opened.
Allen said a better gauge of the casino's impact will occur in winter months, when tourists tend to avoid the mountains.
“Traffic is much heavier now, with the casino open, but business-wise, we are running pretty much the same,” Allen said. “Once summer is over and after fall foliage hits when the leaves change in October, that will be the test.”
Winter could be a test of the casino's impact on the National Trail Motel, according to one of its owners, Luella Hager. She said many guests who patronize the hotel she runs with her husband, Terry, return yearly to visit attractions that include Ohiopyle State Park, Laurel Caverns, Fort Necessity National Battlefield and Fallingwater.
Hager said only two customers in the past few weeks mentioned visiting the casino, and she doesn't anticipate business increasing because of it.
“When they put that up here, I wasn't planning on anything from it,” Hager said, noting her small hotel is 2.5 miles from the casino's entrance. “I rely on quite a few customers who come back every year, so I don't rely on what the casino will bring in until I see it.”
Need to wait a year
Jeff Nobers, Nemacolin spokesman, said the resort has not determined the casino's effect on overnight stays there because the resort was running at more than 95 percent occupancy when the casino opened.
“It will take a full year of operations for us to make any kind of legitimate gauge,” Nobers said.
Julie Donovan, spokeswoman at Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, said the nonprofit group does not have figures to show the casino's impact on hotels. The number of stays are tracked monthly, she said, but the figures typically run a month behind.
Paul Wilhelm and his sister, Mary Lou Gordon, are optimistic the casino will bring guests to their parents' former homestead on Old Mill Run. They and three other siblings converted the 12-bedroom farmhouse into a vacation rental home with an outdoor pool and 70 wooded acres.
Gordon said rental homes appeal to vacationers who want to visit the area's attractions, including the casino, but stay in a private setting with opportunities to cook out, hike, swim or just relax.
In its third year, occupancy at the house is up, Wilhelm said, but not necessarily because of the casino. People typically book the house months in advance, and guests who like to gamble while vacationing will only now start to look at lodging options for their next getaway.
“We're going to see an increase as time goes on,” Wilhelm predicted. “I can't see anything but that casino helping us.”
Liz Zemba is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-601-2166 or email@example.com.
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