How Nemacolin Woodlands was started

By 2011, seven years after passage of the Pennsylvania Horse Race Development and Gaming Act, two of the designated 14 gaming licenses were still to be awarded. One – still not sorted out as of 2014 – was for the second license in the city of Philadelphia, The other was for the so-called Category 3 license for a second resort casino in the Commonwealth. There were four applicants.

One was from a clearly over-reaching motel operation near Harrisburg. One was 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 was from a development group in Adams County in southern Pennsylvania near the Gettysburg National Battlefield. Their proposal promised Pennsylvania a chance to tap the gambling money in Baltimore and Washington and besides, theirs was a fresh location further from any existing Pennsylvania casino than the other applicants. The last bidder was the Nemacolin Woodlands, a tiny resort that had grown up in western Pennsylvania’s lush Laurel Highlands since the 1980s.

Willard Rockwell, who made his fortune by inventing a new ball bearing system for trucks that became the basis for the Rockwell International conglomerate, first developed the property 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 was ill tended and went to public auction in 1987. One of the attendees was 64-year old Joseph Hardy.

Hardy had gone through the University of Pittsburgh and taken away a degree in industrial engineering. Nevertheless he went into the lumber business and in 1956 opened a no-frills “cash and carry” lumber yard with his brothers in a little town that barely made it onto road, maps – Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. Catering mostly to commercial accounts, Hardy grew 84 Lumber Company into the third largest home improvement company in America with 250 stores in 30 states.

The story goes that Joseph 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 the grand European hotels. A separate hotel called Falling Rock was based on the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed 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.

Clearly Nemacolin Woodlands offered everything the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board was looking for in a resort and they 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. There will never be promotions luring 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 and not in the local Herald Standard. As the crow flies, Nemacolin Woodlands is only 60 miles away from the Meadows racino but it may as well be on another planet. The Meadows casino is attached to a harness track; the Nemacolin Woodlands casino is attached to polo fields.

Smallest casino in Pennsylvania

The requirements of it Category 3 gaming license mandate that Nemacolin Woodlands can have 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. Annual revenues were projected to be $66.8 million at Lady Luck which would have been the least of any Pennsylvania casino by a wide margin. In its first 10 weeks of operation revenues were less than $6 million, about half of projections.

Isle of Capri Casinos: The company behind Lady Luck Casino

Nemacolin Woodlands hired Isle of Capri Casinos out of Missouri to helm its Lady Luck Casino 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 stated the company in 1992 to operate the first water-based casinos on the Mississippi River. Isle of Capri had 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

Nemacolin Woodlands offers no poker room and has no plans to open one in the future, although 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. And sometimes it doesn’t even rate an afterthought. From the beginning resort officials did not anticipate gaming to be one of its top revenue generators. Hotel rooms, food and beverage sales and spa services were all expected to continue to be the star performers. Beyond that, Nemacolin offers many other distractions – ziplines, the Heritage Court Shoppes, bowling, climbing wall, a ski lodge, even the miniature golf course is an acclaimed masterpiece – that management was unsure how casino gambling would figure into the activity mix.

As it has turned out in the first few months of operation, the casino’s performance has been underwhelming. 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 nonplussed, pointing out that casinos often over-staff in the beginning and that Pennsylvania casinos often need two or three years to reach revenue projections.

Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock

Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.