MEADOW LANDS – On the morning of June 11, 2007, a peaceful crowd of about 1,000 people snaked around the exterior of a large, domed, tent-like structure assembled at the edge of a vast parking lot adjacent to The Meadows Racetrack.
The structure, which had gone up in the months before its opening, was built by Las Vegas-based Cannery Casino Resorts, which purchased The Meadows property from Magna Entertainment Corp. in November 2005 for $225 million.
When the entrance opened about 9 a.m., the first people to play legal slot machines in Washington County filed in. In no time, the din of more than 1,700 machines was palpable.
Word of the arrival of legal gaming had preceded the tent by a couple of years, ushered in by the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act.
One of the main tenets of the legislation, besides its central goal of creating an enormous infusion of steady tax revenue for a variety of purposes, including real estate tax relief, was that casinos could help boost the state’s flagging horse-racing industry.
On opening day 2007, there were three hotels on Racetrack Road and a couple of fast-food restaurants.
On that day a decade ago, no one could have predicted the din of 1,700 slot machines in a temporary casino would spawn the hottest entertainment, hospitality and shopping district in the county or the casino would eventually attract millions of visitors a year.
A rural stretch
Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi, who in the days before he entered politics was a state policeman stationed in Washington County from 1973 to 1999, recalled that when there was just The Meadows Racetrack, the rest of the one-mile strip between Route 19 and the ramps to Interstate 79 was mostly rural.
Maggi said troopers would occasionally be detailed to direct traffic on busy days at the track, but at other times, Racetrack Road offered them a quiet place to pull off and catch up on paperwork while they deployed traps to catch teenagers trying to set speed records on a flat stretch of highway void of traffic lights.
“We called them screamers,” Maggi said of the young speedsters.
Opening day for the casino in 2007 also raised questions about traffic control for the thousands who arrived that day and those who would come at all hours to the 24/7 establishment, but the concerns were short-lived.
CCR co-owner Bill Paulos, a veteran casino operator who opened 14 other casinos around the world during his career, predicted the opening-day crowd would peak between 6,000 and 10,000 people. By midday, the casino estimated 7,000 were on the property.
Those numbers would pale compared to what was to come.
Paulos had already told media members CCR was looking ahead to building a permanent casino on the grounds that would be four times as large as the 82,000-square-foot temporary venue, adding the new structure would be large enough to accommodate table games if they became legal.
By the time CCR made good on that promise April 15, 2009, opening a 361,000-square-foot venue that would instantly become one of the largest on the East Coast, the country was mired in the Great Recession, but Washington County was seeing the ramp-up of a natural gas boom.
Paulos noted the $450 million investment integrated horse racing and gaming while adding eight restaurants, live entertainment and a 24-lane bowling alley.
The new grandstand and all-new betting area weren’t the only improvements to the racetrack. Between 2012 and 2016, CCR spent another $4.5 million, completing construction of a new paddock with enough space to hold horses for 10 races, and six new barns. It also renovated eight additional barns, installed a new fire alarm system, video system, upgraded sprinkler systems and paved roads throughout the backside.
When casino officials presided over a cake-cutting ceremony exactly a year later, the new casino, which had 3,700 slot machines and 1,150 employees, had already welcomed 3.4 million visitors over the preceding year.
“We believe we have the best on-off access of any casino in all of Pennsylvania,” Paulos said in reference to the venue’s proximity to I-79.
The growth story had spread beyond the confines of the casino and was showing itself along Racetrack Road, where the hotel count had risen to five, with another set to open that summer and site preparation underway for a seventh unit just below Tanger Outlets, which opened Labor Day weekend 2008.
Owners of The Meadows and Tanger Outlets each added a third lane to access their businesses from Racetrack, and a series of traffic lights were constructed to manage the flow of traffic in a way Maggi couldn’t have imagined when he was running down occasional speedsters a few decades earlier.
When the casino welcomed the arrival of table games in July 2010, it hired and trained more than 300 table games dealers, and visitors reached the 3.65 million mark, for what had been up until then a slots-only venue.
Just two years later, when the casino announced it was embarking on $2.5 million in enhancements to the building, including a second parking garage, one of the projects was replacing the carpet on the casino floor, which was already wearing out from the massive amounts of foot traffic.
“While The Meadows continues to announce investments in brick-and-mortar projects at our facility, we also want to ensure our guests’ surroundings are kept to a very high standard,” said then general manager Sean Sullivan.
Just a few months later in early 2013, Horizon Properties, which had already built Hampton Inn & Suites and Cambria Suites hotels on Racetrack Road, as well as the Meadowpointe office buildings on Johnston Road, revealed its plans for “Street at The Meadows,” a mixed-use development of apartments, in-line shops and restaurants on land adjacent to the casino.
Horizon’s project rose up alongside a separate Hyatt Place hotel being constructed directly in front of the casino.
Stats for success
A study conducted for Horizon’s “Street” project painted a statistical picture of what Racetrack Road’s visitors’ impact was having. Citing figures from The Meadows’ 2012 business year, the study found the casino had hosted 2,885,477 slots players; 505,689 table game players; served 2,750,000 drinks; 1.45 million meals; and welcomed 44,318 buses.
It also noted the combined visitors to The Meadows and its neighbor Tanger Outlets was at 7.5 million a year, with a traffic study showing average daily car trips on the stretch between Route 19 and Interstate 79 numbering more than 17,000.
Helping to move all of that traffic in and out of the corridor was the completion of a cloverleaf at the I-79 Racetrack Road exit.
At the time of the study, the nearby hotels, which by 2013 had grown to more than 1,000 rooms, had an occupancy rate of 70 percent, a remarkable pace rarely attained in most areas of the country.
The numbers underscored county officials’ claim that the once-quiet corridor that many used as a quick shortcut between Route 19 and the I-79 ramps had become, in their terms, “white hot,” a prime destination for entertainment, shopping and hospitality.
Despite the downturn of the oil and gas industry that began in late 2014 and is now recovering, the area remains the county’s top tourist destination.
By 2015, CCR was preparing to cash in its chips, and in December of that year, it sold the casino, racetrack and all other amenities for $440 million to Wyomissing-based Gaming & Leisure Properties Inc.
GLPI later named Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment, an operator of 16 casino properties in the Midwest and Southeast, to run The Meadows, of which it took control in September.
At the time of the transaction, The Meadows employed 1,300, making it one of the largest employers in Washington County. Under a state statute, it had, during its first 10 years, provided $84 million in Local Share Account contributions from its slot machine revenue to help the county’s nonprofits and economic development efforts, which leveraged another $355 million in private and public investment for the projects. It also was a major supporter in raising food donations for Greater Washington County Food Bank.
Peg Wilson, executive director of WCFB, said that relationship continues today with Pinnacle.
Pinnacle’s Rodney Centers was named general manager at The Meadows in September. When he took the reins at the casino, he said its addition instantly became one of the top revenue producers among Pinnacle’s 16 operations.
Meadows marketing director Kevin Brogan, who originally worked at the racetrack when the temporary casino was under construction, said recently the property’s attendance now stands at 5 million visitors annually. He explained the number includes those who come to play slots or table games, but also includes those who never cross the casino floor, but are there to bowl, attend a concert or watch a boxing match.
“The place is the hub of tourism for Washington County,” Brogan said.
Next: In Monday’s concluding story on The Meadows Casino’s 10th anniversary, a look ahead to its future under its new operator, and the status of pending LSA legislation.