HARRISBURG - The Valley Forge area, already bustling with hotels, conference centers, and traffic, learned yesterday that it will be home to Pennsylvania's 12th slots casino.
A group led by real estate titan Ira Lubert won approval for a casino of 500 slot machines in the Valley Forge Convention Center. The license was the first of two resort permits to be issued by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which intends to issue 14 of them. The resort license limits the casino to 500 slot machines.
The investors will spend $107 million on the project. A spokesman for the group estimated the casino could be built and operating within a year.
This casino will be open to guests of the convention center's two hotels and to customers who spend at least $10 at any of the other amenities at the complex, which will include restaurants and a new spa.
Those conditions, different from any of the other casinos Pennsylvania has licensed to date, should provide some crowd control, local officials said.
The license was welcome news for officials in Upper Merion Township and Montgomery County, who believe they can manage the additional visitors and take advantage of what could be more than $1 million in tax revenue for the township and county.
Ira Lubert and his son, Jonathan, will own nearly 80 percent of the casino. Other investors include Michael Heller, a partner in the Center City law firm Cozen O'Connor, and Barbara Evans and Ken Kochenour, partners of Ira Lubert.
"We are extremely pleased with the board's decision," said Rick Kelly, a spokesman for Lubert's group. "We are excited to create a first-class gaming experience inside the Valley Forge Convention Center."
The investor group said it planned to build the slots parlor into the existing hotel, using part of the convention center space. Without new signs, the change may not be highly visible to passersby.
"This is a lot smaller than it seems like," said Scott Sibley, chairman of the Upper Merion Board of Supervisors. "When we have a big convention in there, you have a lot of traffic and a lot of people there. We might have people there a little more frequently because of having the casino parlor there, but I think we can handle it."
Sibley and Ronald Wagenmann, the township manager, said the center's developers had promised help with traffic-management needs.
Establishing a spending threshold for would-be casino patrons who are not guests of the hotels has been a strategy since plans were first discussed. Sibley said earlier discussions with the casino developers had set the bar at $15 or $25 of on-site spending.
"We were hoping it was $25," he said, "to keep people from just coming in and going to buy something that was going to be like their admission fee, you know."
There is some uncertainty about the economic benefits for the township and county. Estimates last year indicated both would get $1.2 million to $1.4 million. But officials said yesterday they did not know how much of that money was guaranteed.
"I've just been working with a round number of $1 million because everybody's got rosy estimates," Sibley said.
Although Upper Merion supervisors opted last year to support the gaming plan, the township has to sign off again on the installation. The Valley Forge Convention Center will apply for a building permit before the machines can go in, and the township has the authority to consider that application for up to 30 days under state law.
The two hotels at the convention center - the Radisson Valley Forge Hotel and the Scanticon Hotel - are being renovated as part of the $107 million project cost. The Radisson will become a DoubleTree hotel.
According to Adrian King Jr. of the law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll L.L.P., the investors will spend $32 million to build the casino within the existing complex, and the remainder on upgrading the restaurants and spa.
The investors put up $54 million of their own equity, secured a $25 million loan from the Delaware Valley Real Estate Investment Fund, and assumed $28 million of the existing mortgage on the property, according to King. Ira Lubert already was the majority owner of the convention complex.
Valley Forge has always been a tourist hub with its historic park, but the area has increasingly given Center City hotels surprising competition. Several Valley Forge hoteliers have spent millions in recent years to upgrade.
One hurdle that could remain is a potential appeal from PhiladelphiaPark Casino & Racetrack in Bensalem, which has opposed the granting of a license to a site as close as Valley Forge.
The region is also home to Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack in Delaware County, and Philadelphia has plans to build two casinos.