ATLANTIC CITY - George Toth, chief executive officer of the Mount Airy Casino Resort, already knows how many table games he will have and where he will put his brand new poker room.
"From the day they say table games are legal in Pennsylvania, we can be operational in three to six months," Toth said eagerly.
Now he's got his approval. Pennsylvania lawmakers reached a budget deal Friday night that will legalize table games, opening the door for an estimated $200 million in extra gambling fees and taxes annually for the cash-starved commonwealth.
State officials say blackjack, roulette, poker, craps and other table games should be introduced in about six to nine months - a little slower than Toth's ambitious timetable - once the regulatory system is completed.
While table games are a potential boon for Pennsylvania, the prospect of the state's slot parlors becoming full-fledged casinos is more bad news for Atlantic City in what has been a dismal year for the resort's gambling industry.
Competitors already are smelling blood.
"This makes us full gaming houses," Toth said. "We can compete with Atlantic City on equal footing. This is what we've been waiting for."
Toth once helped attract gamblers to Atlantic City when he was the president of the old Sands Casino Hotel. Now his job is to draw customers to his casino in the heart of the Pocono Mountains.
He predicts that table games will allow the Pennsylvania casinos to steal even more gamblers from Atlantic City's crucial feeder markets of New York and northern New Jersey.
"Our customer database from New York will skyrocket," he said. "I'm only 75 minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel."
Thomas Blanton, a 51-year-old blackjack and roulette player from New York, winced when he described the long bus ride from his home to Atlantic City. Noting that the trip to Pennsylvania would be much shorter for him, he said the introduction of table games would be the final push to get him to try the casinos there.
"I would definitely go there. It would save me a three-hour bus trip to Atlantic City," Blanton said in an interview at Caesars Atlantic City.
Just down the Boardwalk at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, craps player-turned-slot machine gambler Shirley Robinson said she would probably try her luck again at the gaming tables as soon as Pennsylvania expands its gambling. Robinson, 75, of Philadelphia, lives within an easy drive of the casinos in eastern Pennsylvania.
"We will probably stay closer to home to gamble now," she said. "If it's just for an evening or even a weekend of gambling, we will go to Pennsylvania. But if it's for a few nights, then we'll come here."
One Atlantic City gaming executive said the casinos must respond to table games in Pennsylvania by adding more nongaming amenities that will broaden the tourist market beyond gambling. He mentioned museums and aquariums as the types of attractions that are needed to transform Atlantic City into more of a year-round tourist destination.
"It's got to be planned in the next three to five years or Atlantic City will face additional problems. The last thing we need are more hotel rooms or casinos," said Nicholas L. Ribis, CEO of the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort and sister property Resorts Atlantic City.
Analysts believe the older, smaller casinos such as the Hilton and Resorts will be most vulnerable from extra competition in Pennsylvania. Both properties are already struggling with financial problems. Resorts has agreed to be taken over by its lenders after it defaulted on its mortgage and the Hilton disclosed recently that it is negotiating with its lenders after falling behind on its loan payments.
About 30 percent of Atlantic City's $4.9 billion of gaming revenue last year came from table games. The recession and already fierce competition from slot parlors in Pennsylvania and New York have driven down Atlantic City gaming revenue by 15 percent through the first eight months this year.
Robert A. LaFleur, gaming analyst for Susquehanna Financial Group, predicted table games in Pennsylvania will cause Atlantic City casino revenue to fall an extra 4 percent overall and 12.5 percent on the table games side.
"Clearly, this development would accelerate the structural decline of the Atlantic City market and will not be welcomed by those operators," LaFleur wrote in a new research report.
Upscale properties such as Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa should take less of a hit because the Pennsylvania gaming halls don't have the hotel rooms and luxury amenities to rival Atlantic City's largest resorts, LaFleur said. But analysts believe table games could be the catalyst for new Atlantic City-style hotel rooms, restaurants and entertainment in Pennsylvania.
LaFleur estimates that about 25 percent of Atlantic City's visitors come from New York and another 22 to 25 percent from Pennsylvania. Table games will put Pennsylvania in a stronger position to siphon off a larger chunk of Atlantic City's customer base.
"The addition of tables will be impactful and take away a competitive advantage from Atlantic City," LaFleur wrote.
Pauline Flannery, 74, and her 54-year-old daughter, Debra Flannery, both of Lodi, Bergen County, said the lack of table games has been the main thing stopping them from checking out the Pennsylvania casinos.
"We don't go there because they only have slots," Pauline Flannery said during a gambling break at Caesars. "If they get table games, I will try it."
Debra Flannery noted the time they would save driving to Pennsylvania instead of Atlantic City.
"This is a drive of two hours and 15 minutes," she said. "Pennsylvania would be an hour and 10 minutes. So it's about half the time. We will definitely be going there now."
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