How Parx Became the King of Pennsylvania Casino Gaming
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Carrie Nork Minelli -215.801.9389(m)
It is 9:30 on a bright November morning, and the vast parking lot in Bensalem is filling up swiftly.
The folks getting out of cars have a purposeful stride and many are proudly wearing badges on their coats — I VOTED — signifying one of America’s great traditions.
They are headed into a relatively new, bright and welcoming building to partake in another great American tradition.
With nearly 1,000 casinos in 39 states — 12 of which are in Pennsylvania — many consumers now view them as more of an every day local option, like a CVS, a Pathmark or a movie theater, not a novelty requiring a special trip.
But Parx Casino is an exception to the commoditization theory.
It has a terrific location — On Street Road, which links the Pennsylvania Turnpike with I-95, Parx Casino &amp; Racing (its official name) attracts gamers from all over the 6 million population Philadelphia megalopolis, and beyond.
It has tradition — Which is hard to come by in a business that has only been legal in Pennsylvania since July 2004, when the legislature, spearheaded by Vince Fumo, the state senator from South Philly, passed and sent to Gov. Rendell Act 71, which legalized slots and eventually table games at casinos with horse racing tracks.
Originally called Keystone Racetrack, which opened in November 1974, Greenwood Racing (owned by Bob Green and Bill Hogwood) bought it in 1990 and renamed it Philadelphia Park, now Parx Casino & Racing.
It has Green and Hogwood, experienced gaming men from Great Britain who know the industry thoroughly. After they bought the track 24 years ago, Green added full card simulcasting and six Turf Clubs to bring gambling on horse racing to the neighborhoods. They joined Penn National in purchasing Freehold Raceway and leased Garden State. Green also is credited with creating phone and internet betting applications.
So people have been coming to 2999 Street Rd. to gamble in one form or another for four decades, which has made it a great Philly tradition.
Those folks in the parking lot on Election Day have helped make Parx the state’s No. 1 gambling casino and its greatest generator of gaming revenue.
In essence, they have voted with their feet.
Anthony Faranca doesn’t have a British accent — he is a Philly guy through and through.
Born and raised in Somerton — about a 3-iron from the casino he now operates as Parx’s general manager — Faranca went to Archbishop Ryan, Lehigh for engineering and worked for Seimens and Rand Worldwide before he arrived in Atlantic City in 2004.
“I have always been attracted by the casino business,” says the 43-year-old who cut his teeth at Harrah’s and the Showboat in AC, and was a regional VP of marketing for the four Caesars properties in AC.
That was followed by a dual MBA in business and engineering at MIT’s Sloan School, which prepared him for the upper echelons of the gaming business; Parx hired him in 2008 just as Philly Park was being transformed into Parx. He oversaw the introduction of table games in 2010 and became GM in 2013.
“What we sell is the escape and the allure,” he says. “When you sit at a blackjack table and you get an ace, you can’t wait for that next card.”
As alluring as the more than 100 blackjack tables (photo at left) and 80 poker tables in its own room can be, like most American casinos Parx makes much more revenue and profit from its 3,350 slot machines.
Since it debuted as PhillyPark on Dec. 20, 2006, Parx has been the Pennsylvania leader in slots revenue — in 2013-14 alone, the casino grossed more than $354 million from slots, compared to $123 million on table games.
The Pennsylvania casinos — especially the four in the Philly region, Sugar House, Harrah’s Chester, Valley Forge Casino and Parx — have attracted so many slots players that Atlantic City’s casino business has been devastated.
In 2006, the year Pennsylvania casinos opened, AC rang up $5.2 billion in total gaming revenue. By 2013, that figure had plummeted to $2.87 billion. No wonder that five of the 12 AC casinos have closed.
“I started my career in Atlantic City and I have lots of friends still there,” Faranca says wistfully. “It’s terrible to watch.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the casino industry in Atlantic City was printing money. Now, it is a house of cards.
The steady stream of buses that once poured in from Pennsylvania has been reduced to a trickle.
There are no illusions anymore. A huge chunk of Atlantic City’s gambling business is gone and it’s never coming back.
But it’s not just the gambling money that is gone. It’s the jobs.
When three casinos closed at the end of September, more than 8,000 jobs went with them. By contrast, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board boasts that the Keystone State’s casinos have created 16,000 new “living wage” jobs and generated more than $9 billion of tax revenue.
No one knows what’s in the cards for Atlantic City, least of whom Gov. Chris Christie who spent $300 million of state revenue on the Revel, which in two years never had a profitable day.
Think about that!
Now the prospective contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will have to defend that fiscal failure during the presidential primary season, and he is floating another pipedream — sports betting to save the Atlantic City economy.
However, the federal courts have struck down that possibility every chance they have gotten.
Faranca and every other Pennsylvania gaming executive worth his salt is well aware that slot machines were the attraction of millions of older Pennsylvanians who flocked to Atlantic City to enjoy the action and while away the hours.
And he is also well aware that in order to build on a rock solid slots base Parx needs to maximize that base.
“I recognize that gaming is a commodity,” Faranca says, “and I look at slots as a box. The difference at Parx is our team members [otherwise known as customer service reps] who are especially attentive to our slots players.
“I preach every day that our team members’ interaction with our guests goes a long way to making them feel appreciated, and that is simply good business.”
Mohegan Sun in Luzerne County might have beaten Parx to the punch as the first casino in the state in November 2006, but Parx, which opened as PhillyPark a month later, has more than caught up.
Parx Casino opened in December 2009; table games were instituted in July 2010; Parx Poker opened in November 2010; and of course there is the horse racing, which operates Saturday through Tuesday year-round, weather permitting.
The jewel in the crown of racing at Parx is the Pennsylvania Derby, which since 1979 had been a staple of the Labor Day weekend but in recent years has been run later in September.
Great horses like Smarty Jones and Barbaro, with Philly roots, have been regulars at Parx, and the nine-furlong Derby has attracted the nation’s best. This year Bayern snagged the $1 million purse from Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome.
Parx is unique among local casinos because of its location, tradition and management experience, but in one important way it is just like every other casino here, in Atlantic City or in Las Vegas, where they have been in business since 1931.
It does everything it can to keep gamers from leaving the building.
There are no clocks or windows to entice customers to wonder and wander, and Parx has made sure every possible dining demographic has been covered:
Parxgrill is an upscale restaurant; SangKee Noddle House was created by Center City chef Michael Chow; Foodies is a fast food option without the fast food look and taste; Clubhouse is an upscale spot with a view of the racetrack; Trackside Dining is more casual; Paddock Grill offers fast food at Parx East; and the Circle Bar serves the poker room at Parx East.
And for the younger, hipper crowd there is 360, a sleek bar in the main casino that also features live entertainment; Jax Sports Bar has 20 LEDs and video poker; Finish Line Bar in Parx East; and Chickie’s & Pete’s, the legendary Philly sports bar famous for its crab fries, which has been voted America’s No. 1 sports bar by ESPN.
Another addition that will appeal to younger Parx customers is the arrival on Sunday, Nov. 16 of Bridemaids Video Slots, with a bridesmaids dress drive benefiting Philly-based non-profit Becca’s Closet, which donates attire to women who might otherwise not be able to afford them.
Inspired by the 2011 comedy movie “Bridesmaids,” starring Kristen Wiig and which did almost $300 million box office worldwide, the IGT slots video has reels of bouquets, puppies and bridesmaids, just like the movie.
Greenwood Gaming and Entertainment Inc., which owns Parx, is also partners with the Cordish Co., a Maryland developer, in Maryland Live! a casino in Anne Arundel Co., Maryland, that opened in 2013 and is by far that state’s largest and most profitable casino.
Greenwood and Cordish are also teamed in Live! Hotel @ Casino, which on Nov. 18 won the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board approval to open a second casino at 900 Packer Avenue, near Citizens Bank Park. It was one of four proposals before the PGCB, which choose Live! as Philly’s second casino, along with Sugar House.
Bob Green, chairman of Greenwood, is quite sure his location is the best, and he spared no words in making that case before a PGCB hearing in January 2014
“The city deserves a first-class operator,” Green said.
“I’d like to escort you out of the world of fantasy — of roof-top pools and second-floor gaming — and take you into reality. Either one of those sites would be an absolute disaster.”
He was referring to developer Bart Blatstein’s proposed Provence Casino and Resort, the one that plans a roof-top pool on the site of the old Inquirer building, and Ken Goldenberg’s Market8, which plans gaming on the second floor at 8th and Market.
Live! Hotel &amp; Casino (photo below) will cost $425 million and have 2,000 slot machines and 125 table games, along with a 300-room hotel, five restaurants-and-bars and 2,600 parking spaces.
As we sift the bleached bones of the Atlantic City gaming industry — on Nov. 14 the Inquirer reported across the top of the front page that the “DO AC” ad campaign is over and with it its support group, the Atlantic City Alliance — Pennsylvania approved a second license in Philly.
I haven’t studied each of the proposals so I don’t know which of the four was best, and there has been outcry in the neighborhood surrounding the Live! site, with fears of crime, traffic and parking problems and excessive littering raised by the neighbors.
It is easy to read studies paid for the proponents or opponents of gaming and come away with distinctly different projections — depending on who pays for the study.
But Parx has been in business for almost eight years in Bensalem, and it has developed a terrific relationship with the neighborhood and non-profits.
According to an October 2013 article in the Inquirer — perhaps the most ardent opponent of casino gambling in all of journalism — Parx is a great neighbor:
“Parx Casino in Bensalem has accounted for nearly three-quarters of all charitable donations by Pennsylvania casinos.
“Parx … has donated $36.6 million to charity over the last six years, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
“The next most generous casino was Rivers in Pittsburgh, which spent $3.2 million on charitable giving and community outreach over the same period – less than a tenth of the amount donated by its cross-state rival.
“The charitable funds are in addition to the casino taxes that flow to host communities. They have totaled $100 million in the case of Bensalem and Bucks County since Parx opened in late 2006.”
“I am very happy that Parx Casino and Ron Davis are in our life,” said Karen Forbes, executive director of YWCA Bucks County in Bensalem. Forbes said that, since 2007, Parx has given about $10,000 annually to the YWCA.
The biggest single gift confirmed by the Inquirer was $100,000 to the American Red Cross for relief after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Another significant beneficiary is Bensalem Rescue Squad Inc., which has publicized several annual donations of $84,000 and more to help pay for the operation of a third ambulance during peak hours.
State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, whose district includes the casino, said Parx had been exceedingly generous with groups that were helping the “neediest and most vulnerable.”
Pennsylvania’s casino industry has created 16,000 jobs, and with the accepted 2.5 multiplier of ripple effects jobs that translates to 40,000.
According to Carrie Nork Minelli, its director of advertising and public relations, Parx employs approximately 1,500 people with well-paying jobs, including benefits. That’s 3,750 with the ripple effect.
In an economy still recovering from the deepest recession since the 1930s, how can any neighborhood walk away from those kinds of numbers?