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Ready, set, gamble: Opening draws full house
George Keifer hadn't been to Mount Airy resort since his honeymoon in 1965 and, as he recalls, he took full advantage of the heart-shaped bathtub, leaving his hotel room only to buy meals.
Keifer, a retired dairy farmer from Lower Mount Bethel Township, was back at Mount Airy on Monday for a different kind of recreation.
And this time he arrived with a mob of people he didn't know as well as he knows his wife, Carol.
When Mount Airy Casino Resort on Monday became the first stand-alone casino to open its doors in Pennsylvania, in rushed Keifer and 1,500 other people who had waited in line for hours -- and in some cases drove hundreds of miles to be there.
"Not quite as much fun as last time, but it's getting there," Keifer joked 30 minutes after sitting down at a penny machine. "I'm up $118."
Pennsylvania's racetrack casinos began opening in November 2006, but the honeymoon haven-turned casino at Mount Airy is the first of the state's five larger, stand-alone casinos to open. It's a monopoly that owner Louis DeNaples will enjoy for more than a year because none of the other stand-alone casinos, including one proposed for Bethlehem, have broken ground.
While a 300-yard line of primarily retirees waited impatiently for the noon opening, DeNaples and 150 politicians and business leaders in formal wear gathered 200 yards away at a separate entrance adorned with a chandelier and two faux fireplaces for a dedication ceremony.
Raymond Angeli, a member of the state Gaming Control Board, presented DeNaples a certificate that allowed him to open the doors.
DeNaples thanked his family, God, the Gaming Control Board and the state Supreme Court judges who upheld the decision to give him a slots license, and declared it a "special day for the citizens of Pennsylvania and especially northeastern Pennsylvania."
Fury Gionvannucci, a White Haven retiree wearing a plaid flannel shirt and comfortable shoes, had no regrets about the line he was in. "I've seen enough politicians," he said. "I'm anxious to get in there to lose my money."
Gionvannucci was near the front of a surging line that started when Joseph Battaglia and his wife, Barbara, of Brooklyn, N.Y., showed up at 8:15 a.m.
Frank Loki, a retired Martin Guitar worker from Bethlehem who didn't seem to mind leaning on his cane for three hours came next, and behind him were two retirees on motorized scooters. While some people came from other states, and many in line came from New York City, most were people who live in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Some, like former school bus driver Georgeanne Apgar of Palmerton, were in Monroe County to make history. Rich Cincotta played hooky from his middle school principal job in Long Island, N.Y., and others, such as Joyce Fox of Walnutport, just wanted to find another place to lose their money.
Fox was certain she would have better luck than she did Sunday at Foxwoods in Connecticut.
"Look how beautiful this place is," Fox said. "Louie [DeNaples] isn't a cheapskate, so I know he'll let me win a jackpot."
The surging mob was enough to make even security guard and former New York City police officer Piscarte Sanchez a little nervous. Sanchez was all that stood between the crowd and the escalators taking them to the casino floor.
"Ladies, ladies please," Sanchez said to three women pressing against the entrance. "Any closer and my wife will be jealous."
When casino operators opened the gates seven minutes early, the scene played out like the running of the bulls in Pamplona. In front, Celio Miglosi, 77 of Exeter, Luzerne County, whose oxygen tank was secured on the back of his motorized scooter, mapped out an inside track against a woman riding a scooter next to him.
As they hit the casino floor, it appeared the woman beat him by a nose, but Miglosi wasn't conceding. "I got past her," he said. "But I was a gentleman. I told her, "Age before beauty,' as I went by."
Actually, the big winner Monday was the state, which is taking a 55 percent tax cut of every dollar lost in the machines. State legislators in 2004 legalized the construction of as many as 14 casinos statewide as a way of raising $1 billion a year to reduce property taxes.
Donald Moore, who made the 25-minute drive from East Stroudsburg, was exactly the kind of gambler state officials want to see at Mount Airy. Like many in the crowd, Moore said he would forgo his trips to Atlantic City to gamble closer to home. "This is very exciting," he said.
Monday's public opening followed a two-night invitation-only test run in which Kevin Hayes, state Gaming Control Board director of gaming operations, said there were no problems.
"The staff is well trained and none of the slots malfunctioned," Hayes said. He said the casino staff includes many managers who previously worked in Atlantic City.
During the test, about 4,500 guests wagered $2 million -- more than 90 percent of which was paid back to players in winnings. The gross revenue, according to unaudited figures, was $135,967, with the state keeping 55 percent and Mount Airy donating its cut to four charities.
But as long as the state has been waiting to collect its tax money, DeNaples has been waiting longer.
Monday was the realization of a years-long mission to bring gambling to Pennsylvania. And he chose a resort that was always associated with Pocono tourism -- for better and worse.
In its heyday, Mount Airy Lodge was a honeymooner's haven, with commercials urging people to have "Have a fling in the spring in the Poconos" and offering top-of-the-line entertainment such as Tony Bennett, Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope.
The lodge in Paradise Township fell on hard times in the late 1990s, filing for bankruptcy and being sold at a sheriff's sale in 2000.
DeNaples bought Mount Airy in late 2004 for $25 million and demolished the original structure to make way for a casino. He broke ground in July 2006, five months before the state awarded him a slots license.
His leap of faith prompted some to suggest he had influenced the board and also spurred a Dauphin County grand jury to investigate whether DeNaples told the truth to the gaming board about alleged ties to reputed Scranton mobster William D'Elia. DeNaples has denied any ties to D'Elia or any member of organized crime.
In a brief appearance before reporters, DeNaples said that looking back, he had been "confident in himself and confident in God" that he would get a license. Looking ahead, he predicted businesses in the area will grow.
"For the next few years, openings and expansions will be big news in the Pocono Mountains," he said.
That includes Mount Airy, which will open a 188-room hotel next month, and a nightclub, spa and salon in December. The casino, which has 2,523 slots, will have 3,000 next year.
DeNaples' appearance ended when he was asked a question about the grand jury probe, which was effectively put on hold this month when the state Supreme Court -- at DeNaples' request -- temporarily suspended an order issued by a county judge overseeing the inquiry.
But inside the casino, the sound of spinning wheels kept rolling along.