|By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette,
W.Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 24, 2009--WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The Greenbrier's new owner, Jim Justice, wants to build a 50,000-square-foot casino at the resort by the end of the year, but first he must find a place to put it.
Justice already has suggested one possible site: The West Terrace putting green area -- opposite the hotel's front-entrance lobby.
It's a place where guests take part in putting contests or relax in white rocking chairs on a patio overlooking a gently sloping hillside of lush grass and trees.
"The way I see it is we've got four golf courses with nine putting greens," Justice said. "This is one we could sacrifice."
Justice acknowledges that the $20 million casino is part of his plan to revive the struggling resort as a tourist and conference destination -- and start making money.
But by no means does he believe gambling alone will save The Greenbrier.
"The gaming will be another attraction and a significant amenity," said Justice, who purchased the resort for $20.1 million earlier this month from CSX, then persuaded a judge to dismiss The Greenbrier's bankruptcy case last week.
"What's going to get you to the top is getting that fifth [Mobile Travel Guide] star back and making this a place where the hobnobbers of the world want to come. Having the gaming will surely be a plus, but what's going to get you there is more elegance."
Although gambling was never permitted on Greenbrier property, resort guests gambled at nearby clubs from the 1920s to the late 1960s, said Greenbrier historian Dr. Robert S. Conte.
There was the Colonial Club, Cabin Club and Little Al's. Big, black Cadillacs would pull up to the hotel's front door and shuttle people to the gambling dens.
"Everybody knew it was around somewhere, and if you would ask, you could find it," Conte said.
The Colonial was probably the most upscale club. You had to be a Greenbrier guest to enter.
"It was black tie," Conte said. "They served good food, good booze."
Greenbrier guests also would place bets during a game called golf "Calcutta." They would wager on a team of golfers -- made up of one professional and three amateurs.
"You could generate a sizable amount of money on somebody's team," Conte said. "These were wealthy people."
Though such games and gambling clubs are long gone, Justice wants to attract a similar clientele of high rollers.
He frequently talks about building a "Monte Carlo- or Dubai-style" casino. Asked for more specifics, Justice said he's never been to a casino in Monte Carlo or Dubai, but suspects such places offer the "tasteful gaming" that he plans to bring to The Greenbrier.
"We're looking for an architect who's built a casino in Monte Carlo or Dubai," Justice said. "This is a place to have an experience, an entertaining gaming experience, not just a place to go gambling."
Justice envisions that an enclosed walkway would connect the casino to the historic hotel. The casino would be soundproof, so it wouldn't disrupt Greenbrier guests who enjoy the resort's peaceful setting.
"I want this to be like you're going into a different dimension," Justice said. "It will be eloquent, but high energy. You'll be going into a time lock."
The West Terrace putting green is one of several sites that Justice is considering.
Resort employees have suggested building the casino on a hillside beside the hotel's West Virginia wing, or on the site of an old single-story parking garage that now serves as a storage area near the hotel's north entrance.
The Greenbrier's massive underground bunker has been ruled out. The hotel initially planned to put a high-end casino in the bunker in 2000, but Greenbrier voters rejected gambling that year.
The hotel has since leased space in the bunker for document and data storage.
Bunker tours also generate revenue for the hotel and have become one of the resort's top attractions. The bunker was meant to serve as an emergency shelter for Congress during the Cold War.
The casino's patrons will be limited to hotel guests and members of The Greenbrier Sporting Club's luxury home development. People registered for events at the resort also will be allowed to gamble -- provided 400 rooms are occupied at the time.
Justice said the casino would include table games and slot machines.
"We don't want to limit this to the ultra wealthy to be able to play," Justice said. "You just can't put in a bunch of blackjack tables unless you do it in a tasteful way."
Last year, Greenbrier County voters approved gambling at the resort.
Earlier this month, Gov. Joe Manchin signed a bill into law that will allow The Greenbrier to keep a larger share of gambling profits. In exchange, the resort will put about $5 million of gambling proceeds a year into employee health benefit plans.
Greenbrier workers predict the casino will be a boon to the resort, keeping rooms booked during the normally slow winter months. The Greenbrier typically furloughs hundreds of its 1,300 workers each winter.
"We'll have work year-round now," said Dale Mann, a doorman who has worked at The Greenbrier for 35 years. "We've got a family-oriented man who's now our boss. We have someone who cares."
Although West Virginia's racetrack casinos have struggled to find table-game dealers, Justice doesn't believe that will be a problem for The Greenbrier.
"This is The Greenbrier," Justice said. "I want all these jobs to be the envy of the world."
The Greenbrier lost its fifth star in 2000. Justice wants to recapture the five-star rating, but it's unclear whether a casino will help him do it. The Mobil Travel Guide gave five stars -- its highest rating -- to 44 hotels in the U.S. and Canada last year. Only two of those -- the Tower Suites at Wynn and Skylofts at MGM Grand in Las Vegas -- offer gambling.
Justice hopes to have the casino's architectural plans finished by the end of June. He expects the casino to open by New Year's Eve.
"This is going to be something special," he said.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.
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