New Meadows operator plans to use its size to build on casino’s decade of success

June 5, 2017
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Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter
Meadows Casino general manager Rod Centers stands at the valet entrance to the building in Meadow Lands. Order a Print
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Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter
Rod Centers, Meadows Casino general manager Order a Print
Image description
Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter
Meadows Casino general manager Rod Centers stands at the valet entrance to the building. Order a Print

MEADOW LANDS – In early October, Pinnacle Entertainment brought some of its high-rolling guests from its Kansas City casino to The Meadows.

The visit, of course, included playing time at the tables, a stay in a nearby hotel, as well as tickets to a game between the Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field.

“We had Steelers jerseys waiting for them when they arrived, which they took with them, but didn’t want to put on,” recalled Meadows general manager Rod Centers.

The Steelers won that matchup in a 43-14 blowout, and Centers said he witnessed some of the guests changing into the Pittsburgh jerseys when it became evident who would win.

The story also illustrates how Pinnacle, which operates 15 other casinos in the Midwest and Southeastern United States, is able to cross-sell its locations in a way that’s upping revenue at the North Strabane Township casino.

While one month is a small sample size, The Meadows recently posted a 50 percent increase in table games revenue in April from the same period a year ago, before Pinnacle took over management of the venue.

According to Centers, the same cross-selling strategy will be employed when high-rolling guests from Pinnacle casinos in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Chicago. Like Pittsburgh, those cities have Major League Baseball teams playing in the same division of the National League and will be able to visit PNC Park for a game.

He’ll also be taking some of the out-of-town guests to the U2 concert in Pittsburgh this week.

Building on success

When Las Vegas-based Cannery Casinos Resorts sold the local casino it had built to Wyomissing-based Gaming and Leisure Properties Inc. last year, it handed over the keys to one of the largest casinos on the East Coast. GLPI handed off management duties to Pinnacle, which fulfills that role at 15 other properties.

Centers said The Meadows immediately became one of the top revenue producers in Pinnacle’s portfolio of properties it manages.

While CCR, which was based in Las Vegas with two smaller operations there, also used a cross-selling approach among its three properties, it didn’t have the marketing clout of more than a dozen casinos to be able to pursue Pinnacle’s strategy with the same degree of latitude.

Despite its smaller size, CCR built a casino that now hosts some five million guests a year and, along with its neighbor Tanger Outlets, was the driving force behind turning a sleepy Racetrack Road into the county’s most vibrant hospitality and entertainment hot spot within a decade of its opening June 11, 2007.

According to Centers and marketing director Kevin Brogan, CCR’s decision to add bowling, a popular summer concert series and frequent boxing matches to its gaming and horse-racing offerings made The Meadows a total entertainment center, something Pinnacle intends to build upon.

“This place is the hub of tourism for Washington County,” Brogan said, explaining that the five million visitor count at the venue is all-inclusive.

“There are people who come here and never go on the casino floor,” he said, noting the numbers of people who come solely for the entertainment offerings.

Plans for growth

Centers, who praised CCR for the work it did in making the casino a premier attraction, said Pinnacle will “take advantage of our size” to grow the operation further.

He recently outlined Pinnacle’s plans for the North Strabane Township venue, which include the following:

• Make more of its table games available to players at any given time, which he said will necessitate the hiring of more dealers.

According to Centers, the casino currently employs between 1,250 and 1,300 people, with 82 percent classified as full time.

• Invest more money into slot machines, and improve lighting and audio-video systems in the gaming area.

• Enhance food and beverage offerings with a focus on quality.

• Enhance the high-tech security system. Centers said Pinnacle has added more high-definition cameras to The Meadows’ already robust security surveillance system.

Sgt. Robert Copechal, the officer in charge of the state police security detail that covers the inside of the casino, said the detail “handles the gamut of offenses from thefts to assaults and simple trespassing,” the latter of which mostly stems from patrons with gambling problems who have excluded themselves but try to return to the casino.

He said the casino “does a very good job” handling drunk and disorderly guests with its own security personnel.

“We don’t have a lot of problems here,” Copechal said, but noted that some officers have participated in several in-depth cases over the years with federal authorities investigating more serious criminal activity against casinos.

• Continue to grow relationships with the Hyatt Place and other Racetrack Road hotels.

“We’re seeing mid-week occupancies that we haven’t seen in a couple of years,” Brogan said. “We want to bring more players and work on rates” with the hotels.

• Build on the casino’s relationship with the horsemen, who are represented by the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association.

MSOA Executive Director Kim Hankins said last week said the relationship with Pinnacle “is good, but it’s still in its infancy.” Hankins believes that Pinnacle’s familiarity with horse racing – in addition to the harness track at The Meadows, it also has three thoroughbred track racinos – bodes well for his organization, whose membership includes between 700 and 750 drivers, trainers and owners, as well as 150 grooms who are associate members.

An April report by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board found that the number of racing days and live races in Pennsylvania has declined each year for the past four years. Despite the downturn, PGCB noted that the number of live races in 2016 was 30 percent higher when compared to 2006, when casino gaming was introduced, “mainly due to the opening of two new racetracks in the commonwealth.”

The board also found that the live on-track handle, or amount wagered on races, was $27 million at the six racetracks in the commonwealth in 2016, representing a 10 percent decline from 2015. Purses awarded statewide also declined by 23 percent from a year earlier. Another $6.2 million was wagered off-track on live races, a 26 percent reduction from 2015.

Meadows officials said handles and purses have remained relatively steady, but acknowledged that like the rest of the horse-racing industry, they need to attract a younger fan base.

The track sponsors its annual Adios event in August and also draws thousands of fans for the annual Derby Day event in May, which this year produced a 10 percent increase in handle over last year, Centers said.

Hankins said MSOA is spending $150,000 this year on a variety of advertising, including billboards on buses, as well as television, radio and social media promotion in the region.

Both Brogan and Centers said The Meadows hosts community events like Corks ’n Kegs and the recent Food Truck Festival with the goal of attracting new visitors to the site, regardless of whether they gamble.

“We’ve got to get people to the property,” Brogan said.

“We’re not going force it into people that they’re here to gamble when they’re here,” Centers said. “If that’s not their cup of tea, that’s great, maybe they’ll pick something else to do while they’re here.”

LSA legislation concerns

While Washington County officials proudly proclaim The Meadows as the No. 1 tourist attraction, they’re also hoping for the continuation of another major asset from the casino – its annual contribution to the Local Share Account.

The LSA is a decade-old state statute that requires casinos to provide a percentage of their slot machine revenue to the county’s LSA panel, which hears pitches from nonprofits and municipalities for economic and community development projects.

Over the past 10 years, The Meadows has contributed $84 million in LSA funds, which has been used to leverage another $355 million to do everything from enhancing tourist attractions to building playgrounds, upgrading community centers or improving water and sewerage and other local infrastructure.

The state Legislature has been charged by the state Supreme Court to find a more equitable way for the 12 casinos to fund their LSAs.

“It’s almost a half-billion dollars of investment,” said Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi of the impact LSA funds have had. “These are real dollars we’ve invested back into Washington County” to make improvements that help to attract more people and businesses to the county, he said.

North Strabane Township has also been closely following the legislative activity related to LSAs, said township Manager Frank Siffrinn.

Siffrinn said that as the host community to the casino, it receives about $2.7 million per year, which it places in a separate capital reserve fund. The township floated a bond several years ago to build a new community park and to purchase a new aerial truck for its fire department, using money from the fund to service the debt.

He added that the township also transfers about $300,000 annually from the fund to cover the salaries of the five additional police officers it hired to patrol the outside property of The Meadows.

State Rep. Rick Saccone, whose two-county district includes municipalities that receive funding from Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino or The Meadows Casino, said the Legislature will pick up the debate on the LSA question this week. Proposals include the expansion of internet gambling and extending gambling to airport kiosks.

Saccone said the result could result in “a bigger cut for the counties who don’t have casinos in them.”

Siffrinn said he has been told by local lawmakers that a bill that has been forwarded from the Senate to the House isn’t expected to impact the current method of funding host communities of casinos.

Michael Bradwell has been business editor for the Observer-Reporter since 1995, and was named editor of The Energy Report in 2012. He joined the newspaper in 1990 as a general assignment reporter in the Greene County bureau and has also worked as a copy editor. A 1974 graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a degree in English, he began his career at the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette. Prior to joining the O-R, he served as public relations director for Old Bedford Village, account executive at two Pittsburgh public relations agencies and copywriter for the country’s largest wholesaler of mutual funds.

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