Nemacolin resort gets Pa. casino license

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Casino gambling is coming to the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in southwestern Pennsylvania after the luxurious resort won a four-way derby Thursday to capture the state's last miniature "resort" casino license.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board voted 6-1 in favor of Nemacolin. In doing so, gambling regulators also rejected a bid by a hotel and conference center near Gettysburg that had generated opposition from some Civil War preservationists who worried that gambling would sully the area's historic character and dishonor the sacrifice of soldiers who died there.

Opponents of the Gettysburg application who attended the packed meeting hugged and cried after warding off a second attempt in five years to land a casino license near the site of the Civil War's tide-turning battle.

Nemacolin's founder, 84 Lumber CEO Joe Hardy, said he felt like he won the Super Bowl.

"We're thrilled," Hardy said after board members voted. "I mean, I'd like to jump up in the air. It's something that's really going to make Nemacolin. We have all these amenities and that ties in beautifully."

Nemacolin, considered one of Pennsylvania's most luxurious resorts, is about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh in the Laurel Highlands. Hardy and his daughter were well-known in Harrisburg as generous donors to political campaigns in the past, but the law precludes casino owners from making such contributions.

The permit allows 600 slot machines and, if the board approves it separately, 50 table games. The state's combined licensing fee is $12.5 million, and a hefty cut of gambling profits also goes to reduce local taxes, underwrite civic construction projects, subsidize the horse-racing industry and aid volunteer firefighting squads.

The 2004 law that put Pennsylvania on the path to becoming one of the nation's biggest commercial gambling states legalized as many as 61,000 slot machines at 14 casinos. Along with 12 full-size casino licenses, lawmakers created the two smaller resort licenses with Nemacolin in mind.

"I believe that they epitomize what the Legislature intended when they drafted the legislation for the award of two resort licenses," the board's chairman, Greg Fajt, said in announcing his decision to vote for Nemacolin.

A group with a hotel-conference center in Valley Forge previously was awarded the other resort license.

St. Louis-based Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. will build and operate the $50 million Nemacolin project. It beat out three other applicants: the Fernwood Hotel & Resort in the Pocono Mountains, the Eisenhower Conference Center near Gettysburg and a Holiday Inn in suburban Harrisburg.

Nemacolin hopes to open the Lady Luck Casino within 12 months. However, construction could be delayed if a losing applicant or another party to the case, such as The Meadows casino nearby, appeals the decision. Under the law, a casino licensing appeal goes straight to the state Supreme Court.

Pennsylvania's gambling regulators have now awarded licenses to 13 applicants since 2006 and revoked one of them. Ten casinos are operating, including six in eastern Pennsylvania, three in western Pennsylvania and one in central Pennsylvania near Harrisburg.

Board member Kenneth Trujillo cast the only "no" vote for Nemacolin, arguing that Fernwood could draw stronger gambling profits - and, as a result, stronger tax collections for the state - because of its proximity to the heavily populated Eastern seaboard.

"You're never going to grow the western (Pennsylvania) population to the extent that the eastern population has, so I believe that would have a greater chance of exceeding our expectations," Trujillo said.