Hundreds Welcome Pennsylvania's First Slots Casino

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Hundreds of gamblers, mostly senior citizens who had been waiting hours in a foggy drizzle, poured into Pennsylvania's first slot-machine parlor as its doors opened Tuesday, more than two years after lawmakers authorized gambling to raise money for property tax relief.

Eager to try their luck, gamblers occupied most of the casino's 1,100 machines in less than 10 minutes.

Wilkes-Barre car dealership manager Vince Esposito was one of the first to start playing at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, putting a $20 bill into a Double Powerball machine.

"That's entertainment," he said as he pushed the button. Right beside him, Sharon Chapman of Summit Hill put in $20 and hit for $50 within two minutes.

The Mohegan Indian tribe of Connecticut, owner of the Pocono Downs harness racing complex outside Wilkes-Barre, spent $70 million on a slots parlor that includes two gambling floors with nearly 1,100 machines, a bar, and a food court with three restaurants.

While the building can't measure up to the glitz and glamor Las Vegas or Atlantic City, N.J., it doesn't have to. Hundreds showed up early Tuesday, lured by the novelty and convenience of all-hours legalized gambling in Pennsylvania.

Jean Ruddy, a retiree from Scranton, was in line Tuesday, waitingin the rain with her husband, Tom, since about 7:30 a.m. An avid slots player who visits Atlantic City about once a month, Ruddy said she was looking forward to having a slots casino so close to home.

She hoped that the machines might be a little more generous on their first day. "If I'm doing well, I'll come quite a bit," she said.

Although Gov. Ed Rendell hailed the casino opening as an important first step in delivering property tax relief, opponents predicted an increase in crime and other social ills.

"I have story after story after story of real people who would not have done the things they did, but gambling became very convenient for them," said Dianne M. Berlin, head of CasinoFreePa, an anti-gambling group. "Convenience gambling is the worst gambling."

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board gave Mohegan Sun permission to open after two successful dry runs on Friday and Sunday nights. The test nights, with an invitation-only crowd, brought in a total of $95,049. Of that amount, 34 percent, or $32,317, was earmarked for property tax relief, as prescribed by state law.

The tribe, which operates a gigantic casino in Connecticut and paid $280 million for Pocono Downs in 2004, plans a second phase of development that will nearly double the number of slot machines and add retail shops, a nightclub and other amenities.

When fully operational with 2,000 machines, the slots parlor projects it will gross $230 per machine, per day, for total annual revenues of $167.9 million.

The state plans to use gambling revenues to cut taxes for homeowners and workers who pay Philadelphia's wage tax, fatten horse-racing purses, and support a rent rebate program for senior citizens.

"We have a brand-new industry in Pennsylvania," said gubernatorial spokeswoman Kate Philips, "and the value of it will be exceedingly evident over the coming months as people begin to get jobs in the gaming industry and over the coming years as they begin to see their property taxes reduced dramatically."