At the former site of The Bon Ton department store in the Westmoreland Mall, construction workers zip around like bees.
Some layer bricks into the wall above what will be the second-floor main bar area, while others install slot machines and the kind of colorful carpeting typically found on casino floors.
The cordoned-off area soon will be the location of Live! Casino Pittsburgh, a 100,000-square-foot gambling and entertainment venue developed by Stadium Casino Westmoreland RE, LLC, an affiliate of The Cordish Companies, which operates casinos and entertainment centers nationwide.
“’Live!’ to us is about the experience, it's about throwing a great party and giving people the option to experience different entertainment options in a layered way,” said Bill Brayer, chief operating officer of ECI Live! Dining & Entertainment Districts.
The opening of the $150 million venue in Hempfield, set for late November, will come during a difficult time for many businesses as COVID-19 continues to spread. Other casinos in Western Pennsylvania have been hit hard, with Rivers Casino Pittsburgh and The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington County reporting, respectively, 23% and 26.5% decreases in revenue in August compared to August 2019, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
Sean Sullivan, general manager of Live! Casino Pittsburgh, said that although opening a casino while social restrictions and a 50% capacity limit remain in place is not ideal, he said he believes the venue’s plan to offer entertainment options and customer safety will help it avoid the difficulties similar businesses are facing.
Along with 750 slot machines, 30 table games and a FanDuel-operated sportsbook that will take up the main gambling area on the ground floor. Food options, bars and non-gambling activities such as darts, table tennis, shuffleboard, bowling and a golf simulator will be found on the second floor.
Live! officials call this area Sports & Social Steel City, a “family friendly” alternative to the 21-and-over casino on the floor below.
“We like to think of it as different vignettes of games and activities.” Mr. Brayer said. “You don’t have to come here just to eat or just to gamble. You can come to watch sports, or play games with your friends and family, or just to hang out.”
Customers can access Sports & Social Steel City from either the main lobby or through two separate entrances on the second floor of the building, so that they can completely avoid the main gambling area if they wish.
Customer safety throughout is of paramount importance, Mr. Sullivan said.
Plexiglass panes will be placed between every slot machine, gaming table and counter, and gaming chips will be washed regularly. Thermal cameras will be placed at every entrance, and poker, buffets and valet parking will be prohibited in accordance with state restrictions.
Masks also will be required.
“‘Cherish the guest’ is our company motto, and so to get through this I think we just gotta do what we always do.” Mr. Sullivan said. “Cherish guests, cherish our employees and make a safe environment. It’s as simple as that.”
Employment at the casino also is critically important, not just for the company, but for the local community, Live! officials said.
Other casinos in Western Pennsylvania have been forced to furlough workers due to decreased revenues. Rivers Casino Pittsburgh spokesman Jack Horner said that while the hiring of dealers has resumed, the staff was reduced by about 60 workers in July.
In late June, more than 200 employees of The Meadows Racetrack & Casino and Meadows Harmar off-track betting facility were likewise permanently furloughed.
In addition to the roughly 960 direct and indirect construction jobs at the work site of Live! Casino Pittsburgh, the company expects to employ about 500 as operational staff, including 150 food and beverage staff and about 115 game dealers.
To train many of those dealers, Live! entered a partnership with Westmoreland County Community College earlier this year to support a new casino dealer school.
The company hopes to hire the majority of its dealers from the school, which is holding classes in the Westmoreland Mall, not far from the casino.
“Being family-owned, we don’t have to deal with the mess of being managed by a big conglomerate. Messaging between management and employees is clear, and we offer all of our employees the opportunity to move around to different positions and for upward mobility. The company is really a family in that way.” Mr. Brayer said.
Still, the prospect of opening a business in the mall is a risky one, exemplified by CBL Properties, which owns Westmoreland Mall, announced a restructuring plan in August that could lead to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in October.
Live! Casino Pittsburgh is leasing the property from the mall, but Mr. Sullivan said that he and other officials are confident that the new venue will not be affected.
Rather, Mr. Sullivan said, he believes the casino will be a boon to the struggling mall and vice versa.
“Our marketing demographics show us that this area has a lot of untapped potential.” Mr. Sullivan said. “We think our presence here will strengthen the mall and that the mall will strengthen us. Ultimately, we hope that the partnership between us will get people to start reconsidering this area as a great place to open a new business.”
Nick Trombola: firstname.lastname@example.org
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