|By Chuck Darrow, Philadelphia Daily
NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
October 23, 2009 --With the Pennsylvania gaming industry still in its infancy, the current model of the Keystone State casino is a slot-machine-filled "barn" with little more than a few restaurants and a small nightclub passing for amenities.
But one property, though small compared with its out-of-state brethren, fits more into the Las Vegas/Atlantic City mold. That would be Mount Airy Casino Resort, the only gambling den located within the four counties marketed by the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau. (Despite its name, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre is not in the Poconos as the bureau defines them.)
There are several things that set Mount Airy, which sits on the former site of the venerable Mount Airy Lodge, apart from the rest of Pennsylvania's slot houses. First and foremost is its bucolic, Mount Pocono Township location, a mile or so east of busy Route 611 and about 110 miles north of Philadelphia.
While the other Eastern Pennsylvania properties are situated in cities or suburbia, alongside neighborhoods and strip malls (and, in the case of Harrah's Chester, a prison), Mount Airy is as rustic as it gets, with fabulous views (especially this month, as the fall foliage peaks) and an "away-from-it-all" vibe.
But that's just one difference.
Mount Airy president and CEO George Toth was more than happy to tick off a few others during a recent interview.
"We have a golf course, hotel and spa, amenities that don't exist at the other [Pennsylvania] casinos," bragged Toth, who ran the Sands in Atlantic City before it was sold and demolished. "A golf course right on the doorstep . . . doesn't exist in Atlantic City."
The hotel has two low-rise towers with 214 rooms and suites that have won the property a place on the four-star hotel list maintained by www.expedia.com.
Throughout the property, in public spaces and hotel rooms, original works by local artists are prominently featured. A huge, multi-panel rendering of the nearby Delaware Water Gap is mounted above the main entrance.
The spa, with an Asian motif, compares favorably to similar facilities in Atlantic City casinos.
The casino, laid out on the property's second level, is bright and modern (witness the "Jetsons"-like lighting fixtures), punctuated by playful colors like raspberry and canary yellow. It has more than 2,500 slot machines and electronic versions of blackjack, poker and roulette.
Toth is looking forward to adding table games to the mix as soon as Harrisburg gives its blessings.
"Our plan is to implement 55 table games with an additional Asian-game pit and a poker room," he said. A 20-table poker parlor on the third floor would offer panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
Flanking the gambling floor on one side are casual and fine-dining restaurants and shops. On the opposite side, Gypsies, a multitiered nightclub/disco, welcomes musical acts such as local cover bands, headliners like Frank Sinatra Jr. (who played there last weekend) and "Twist" legend Chubby Checker (Nov. 28). Another recent attraction was a production of "Driving Miss Daisy" starring Sherman Hemsley of "The Jeffersons" fame.
Entertainment plays a crucial marketing role here, especially as regards the small, indigenous population that surrounds Mount Airy.
"When you're up on the mountain, you don't get [headliners]. You don't get Frank Sinatra Jr.," said Sharon Kopin, a former Paramount television exec now in charge of the casino's show-business operations.
Toth and Kopin are also big on themed events, like "A Salute to America's Veterans Weekend" (Nov. 8-10), which will include a war-memorabilia exhibition and a performance by country singer Aaron Tippin (whose song, "Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagle Fly" is an Iraq War anthem).
While open to vets of all wars, the bash is geared toward those who served in Vietnam. The concept is to "welcome home" those military personnel who, when they returned from battle in the late '60s and early '70s, were greeted with hostility and contempt rather than gratitude and respect, Kopin said.
For decades, some in the region saw legal gambling as a way to take the Poconos to a new level as a vacation destination. So far, Mount Airy has been more of a complement to existing attractions than a "game-changer," according to a local tourism official.
"The Poconos are primarily seen as a leisure travel and vacation destination, and most of [the activities are] connected to the outdoors," said Carl Wilgus, president and CEO of the Stroudsburg-based Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau.
"[Mount Airy] has become real important for visitors looking for something to do, particularly in the afternoon and evening. But I can't think one casino would dramatically change how the Pocono Mountains are marketed."
However, Wilgus added, "I think things will change with the addition of table games, which could bring greater prominence to our area. There is a cachet with table games . . . "
In its brief history, Mount Airy Casino Resort has garnered as much publicity for its ownership issues as it has for its amenities and accommodations. It was originally licensed to businessman Louis DeNaples, targeted for decades as having alleged organized crime ties.
In 2008, he was convicted in Dauphin County of perjury for lying about his association with reputed mobsters. As part of a deal with prosecutors, DeNaples, 69, agreed to hand over control of the property to his daughter, Lisa DeNaples, a dentist.
The transfer of ownership took effect a month ago, although the state allowed the elder DeNaples to remain as financial guarantor of about a quarter-billion dollars in debt held by Mount Airy.
Going forward, Toth, who brought with him a number of Sands staffers, hopes the focus will move from behind-the-scenes to the casino attractions, including an ambitious expansion plan encompassing 1,500 acres.
"What we envision is a destination resort that appeals to gamers, to families, to couples," he said. "In five to 15 years, I would anticipate us getting up to 2,000 hotel rooms with three different [levels of accommodations] -- the Disney model. I envision an aerial tram taking guests from hotel to hotel.
"And I see a lot going on with active lifestyles, like tennis, fishing, hiking and skiing."
Mount Airy Casino Resort, 44 Woodland Road, Mount Pocono, 877-682-4791, www.mountairycasino.com.
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