The history of Nemacolin Woodlands
By 2011, seven years after passage of the Pennsylvania Horse Race Development and Gaming Act, the state still hadn’t handed out two of its 14 designated gaming licenses.
Let’s focus on just one of them. It was a so-called Category 3 license for a second resort casino in the Commonwealth. Four parties applied.
One application came from a clearly over-reaching motel operation near Harrisburg. One came from Fernwood Resort in the Pocono Mountains, which based its bid on its long history in the state’s premier vacationland and its proximity to the rich Philadelphia–New York City market.
A third came from a development group in Adams County in southern Pennsylvania near the Gettysburg National Battlefield. Its proposal promised Pennsylvania a chance to tap the gambling money in Baltimore and Washington DC. What’s more, that locale was fresh. It stood further from any existing Pennsylvania casino than the other applicants.
The last bidder was the Nemacolin Woodlands. This tiny resort grew in western Pennsylvania’s lush Laurel Highlands from the 1980s onward.
Willard Rockwell, who made his fortune inventing a new ball-bearing system for trucks, first developed the property. It began as a private hunting preserve in the 1960s.
He named his land Nemacolin Trails after Chief Nemacolin, a Delaware Indian who is credited with blazing trails through the Allegheny Mountains in the 1740s.
The Pittsburgh industrialist lived into his 90th year in 1978. But after that, the property fell into disrepair and went to public auction in 1987. One of the attendees was 64-year-old Joseph Hardy.
With a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, Hardy entered the lumber business. In 1956, he opened a no-frills “cash and carry” lumber yard with his brothers in a little town that barely made it onto roadmaps — Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. Catering mostly to commercial accounts, Hardy grew 84 Lumber Company into the third largest home improvement company in the US with 250 stores in 30 states.
From lodge to resort
The story goes that Hardy came to the Nemacolin auction just looking for a few acres with a fishing stream for his daughter. Instead, he came away with the entire 3,000-acre reserve. He then set about developing an all-season, world-class resort.
He expanded the existing Tudor-style hunting lodge and added the French Renaissance-inspired Chateau Lafayette that called to mind grand European hotels.
A separate hotel called Falling Rock was based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater, about 20 minutes away. In 2006, Falling Rock became the first hotel in western Pennsylvania to be awarded Five Diamonds, the highest rating the American Automobile Association can bestow.
The Lautrec restaurant inside the Chateau Lafayette serves the only Five Diamond dining experience between Philadelphia and Chicago. On the resort grounds, master golf architect Pete Dye built the Mystic Rock course that hosted a PGA Tour event for four years.
Back to the bid
Nemacolin Woodlands clearly offered everything the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board was looking for in a resort.
The body approved Nemacolin by a vote of 6 to 1. But the backers of the Gettysburg-area proposal, who were plagued by protests the casino would desecrate some of America’s most hallowed ground, did not go quietly.
They fought the Board’s decision all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court before the license was ultimately upheld. The legal jockeying delayed the opening of the $50 million Lady Luck Casino until July 2013.
Target market for Nemacolin Woodlands
Nemacolin Woodlands is positioned squarely in the upper end of the resort destination market.
In other words, promotions will never lure busloads of slot-playing tourists to the Lady Luck Casino. When newspaper articles were written about the casino’s opening, they appeared in places like Cleveland and Washington DC, not in the local Herald Standard.
As the crow flies, Nemacolin Woodlands rests only 60 miles away from the Meadows racino. But it may as well be on another planet. The Meadows casino sits next to a harness track; the Nemacolin Woodlands casino sits next to polo fields.
Smallest casino in Pennsylvania
The requirements of its Category 3 gaming license mandate Nemacolin Woodlands can house no more than 600 slot machines and 50 table games.
The Lady Luck Casino installed its quota of slots but, to date, has only opened 28 gaming tables. It not only is the state’s smallest casino, but the Category 3 license permits only resort patrons and gamblers spending $10 on the property entry to the gambling floor.
In the beginning, Lady Luck projected annual revenue of $66.8 million. This would have been the least of any Pennsylvania casino by a wide margin. And in its first 10 weeks of operation, revenues clocked in at less than $6 million, about half of projections.
Isle of Capri: the company behind Lady Luck
Nemacolin Woodlands hired Missouri’s Isle of Capri Casinos to helm its Lady Luck operation.
Bernard Goldstein, who got his start in the scrap metal business and built a fleet of tugboats and barges to haul his scrap, became the “father of riverboat gambling” when he started the company in 1992. It operated the first water-based casinos on the Mississippi River.
Isle of Capri competed for one of the Pennsylvania gaming licenses back in 2004 in Pittsburgh but lost out. The company now operates 15 casino properties in seven states.
No poker room in Lady Luck
Now, Nemacolin Woodlands offers no poker room. It also harbors no plans to open one in the future. That said, the casino still has the right to install another 22 gaming tables under its Category 3 gaming license.
Attractions at Nemacolin Woodlands
The most obvious difference between Nemacolin Woodlands and every other Pennsylvania casino is that gambling is mostly an afterthought at the resort.
From the beginning, resort officials did not anticipate gaming to be one of its top revenue generators. Instead, they planned for hotel rooms, food and beverage sales, and spa services to be the star performers.
Beyond that, Nemacolin offers many other attractions. They include:
- The Heritage Court Shoppes
- Climbing wall
- A ski lodge
- An Acclaimed miniature golf course
With all this going on, the casino performance rather poorly during its first months.
In fact, so few gamblers ponied up the required $10 entry fee in the early going that Lady Luck was forced to lay off 15 percent of its workforce.
Officials appear unconcerned, however. They point out that casinos often over-staff in the beginning and that Pennsylvania casinos often need two or three years to reach revenue projections.