In Pennsylvania's honeymoonland, a quarrel over gambling
Mount Pocono, Pa. — Their names are Bob, Dario, Nancy, and Tom, and they all insist they're good friends. The catch is that Bob and Dario are doggedly promoting something that could affect the lives of millions of people. And Nancy and Tom are just as doggedly opposing them.
What they're sparring over is legalized gambling.
These four people are the key players in a civilized - but intrigue-tinged - drama that is being played out under the vivid autumn hues of the Pocono Mountains, northeastern Pennsylvania's famous vacation and honeymoon region.
This four-county area offers such attractions as lush scenic vistas, recreational lakes, spectacular waterfalls, championship golf courses, skiing, and major-league auto racing. More important to some, it is known for its plush resorts with such features as heart-shaped sunken bathtubs, mirrored bedroom walls, and big-name entertainers.
By its own admission, the tourist industry here is not suffering. The 1983 annual report of the Pocono Mountains Vacation Bureau reads, in part: ''The excellent summer weather . . . and the aggressive advertising and marketing of the Poconos . . . manifested into a good, solid summer business season.''
But visitor rates fluctuate wildly between peak and off-peak seasons. And tourism officials say they're worried over the erosion of tour-bus business to the Atlantic City casinos, 170 miles southeast. More than $35,000 a day in revenues is being lost, they complain.
So at the instigation of some in the tourism industry here, a bipartisan bill was filed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives this fall that would permit Pocono resorts of at least 50 acres and 100 rooms to install slot machines and video gambling games for the use of their patrons. About 30 resorts would qualify.
The bill has inflamed public opinion here, however, not only because of its intent, but also because of the manner in which it apparently was handled.
Both sponsors are from parts of the state well outside the Poconos. They were recruited by a political consulting firm in the state capital, Harrisburg, that was hired by gambling proponents here. When they came to the area to brief reporters on the legislation, the meeting was held behind closed doors and with an armed guard present. Other would-be observers were barred.
Reportedly, the guard was posted because one of the participants claimed a threat had been made against his life. But police departments in the area confirm that no such threat was reported to them.
Moreover, the local state representative, Joseph Battisto (D) of Monroe County, says he wasn't consulted when his colleagues introduced the slot-machine bill. Mr. Battisto leads a bipartisan anti-gambling coalition of House members - 55 at last count, out of a total of 203 representatives.
It is projected by pro-gambling interests that the machines would attract an additional 4.35 million visitors a year to the Poconos, producing $183.6 million in gross revenues, of which $12.8 million in gaming taxes would go to the state of Pennsylvania.
Proponents also estimate that slot-machine tax revenues would result in $600, 000 a year, to be divided among Pocono communities to help pay for police and fire protection and social services.
But Monroe County Commissioner Nancy Shukaitis calls that argument ''a pitiful come-on.'' Her county alone has 20 municipalities, she notes. And since it is already the fastest-growing in the state, its budget will probably have to double by 1988 to provide services for the booming population.
Few local communities in the Poconos have full-time police departments, and there is only a small complement of state police in the 2,300-square-mile area. So she is concerned that the impact of crime that normally follows gambling would be magnified here.
Mrs. Shukaitis also worries about the lure of gambling to the 8,300 high-school and college students in her county. In Atlantic City, according to New Jersey Casino Control Commission statistics, 240,000 under-age people were caught trying to gain access to gambling establishments during the past 19 months.
The Pocono legislation, which has just been referred to committee for study, would specifically ban casinos. But another bill that would sanction casinos anywhere in the state is awaiting action by the full House. In fact, there are about 20 separate gambling bills before the Legislature.
''My people are trying to get into the gambling business very, very reluctantly,'' insists Bob Uguccioni, executive director of the Pocono Mountains Vacation Bureau, an umbrella group of resorts and other tourist-oriented businesses.
Vacation bureau members were polled twice this year on their views of legalized gambling. In both cases 65 percent of those responding said they favored it. But the response rates were low: 435 out of 722 on the first survey and 337 out of 729 on the second. Many of the member resorts are still owned by families instead of corporations and are reluctant to declare themselves on the issue in order not to jeopardize business prospects.
Still, the vacation bureau has formed a committee called Pocono People for Progress to work for passage of the bill. Mr. Uguccioni will not reveal how much money is being spent on lobbying efforts in Harrisburg.
In response to concerns that slot machines would only open the door to more sophisticated types of gambling later, Uguccioni says, ''We don't think casinos will work here.
''Why wouldn't we just start off with casinos if that's what we were really after? I think our credibility in the Legislature would be strained.''
Some form of new gambling legislation will pass, he predicts. He only hopes it will be the one aimed at the Poconos because ''I feel (it) is the best-drafted; we in the Poconos want to control our own destiny.''
But, admits the stocky, dapper man with a brisk manner and long sideburns that taper to the corners of his mouth, ''It sure has stirred things up around here.''
Uguccioni's fellow point man in this effort is Dario Belardi, executive vice-president of Caesar's Pocono Resorts, a division of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Mr. Belardi has been associated with hotels here for 25 years, working his way up from busboy.
He denies accusations that the bid to bring gambling to the Poconos is designed to benefit only those resorts owned by Las Vegas gambling interests, like Caesar's. All four of the company's resorts here would be eligible for the gaming machines.
Caesar's, he says, bought into the Poconos years before gambling became an issue. ''We have been very outspoken against casinos,'' Belardi says. ''It's hard for the public to believe that.''
It can cost $300 million to $400 million to open a new casino, not counting the cost of live entertainment, he says. Such an investment takes a long time to pay off, whereas new slot machines can be lined up in existing floor space for $ 4,500 to $7,000 each.
Belardi calls slot machines and video gaming devices ''a competitive tool'' that Pocono resorts need just as they needed Sunday liquor sales previously to keep from losing business. Some of these resorts are outdated, he says, claiming that it now takes more than ''a room with a bath in the floor'' to attract visitors.
If the Pocono bill fails or is vetoed by GOP Gov. Richard Thornburgh, Belardi says, ''Well, you try again.''
He bristles at Mrs. Shukaitis's claims that some vacationers have said they'll stop coming to the Poconos if legal gambling is allowed. And he is somewhat scornful of a nonbinding referendum held in Monroe County last May in which the idea of gambling was rejected 4 to 1. Only half of those registered turned out to vote, he notes.
That, however, ''is pretty good for a primary, isn't it?'' asks the Rev. Thomas Richards of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Tannersville. He leads two interdenominational groups, Concerned Citizens Against Gambling and Save Our State. Mr. Richards's last previous parish was just outside Atlantic City, where he observed the changes wrought by the arrival of casinos.
''Atlantic City was in bad shape and the Poconos are not,'' Richards says. ''Atlantic City had everything to gain and nothing to lose. We have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Whether they want to call it a casino or not, it's only semantics.''
He also attacks the claim of gambling supporters that most of those who play slot machines are older women. ''The same people will tell you that the honeymoon couples are the backbone of their business,'' Richards says.
At least, he says, ''All sides have kept their sense of humor; we're all neighbors.'' But he also warns: ''This is a fight that I definitely believe in, and I'm committed to doing whatever has to be done to win it.''
Adds Representative Battisto: ''The gambling people try to plant the seed of inevitability - that if it doesn't happen this year it'll happen next year or the year after. That's an attitude I feel we have to eradicate.''