The Last Resort
WITH SYMBOLISM THAT WAS RIPE AND THICK AS THE MOUNTAIN LAUREL IN JUNE, THE OLD POCONOS DIED NEAR THE END OF LAST CENTURY WITH A SINGLE GUNSHOT WOUND TO THE HEAD.
The victim was Emil Wagner, a 77-year-old immigrant from Czechoslovakia who on a November night stepped into the bathroom of a white mansion just up the hill from the resort complex called Mount Airy Lodge, where he’d spent most of his life. Begun as a small boardinghouse in 1936 by his favorite aunt, Suzanne Martens, and her husband John, Mount Airy had grown — “metastasized” might be a better word — into a sprawling agglomeration of more than 800 rooms on 1,200 acres. For decades it had represented everything that the Pocono Mountains could be — good and bad.
It was glamorous and gaudy. It was sylvan yet shabby. But for several generations of East Coast city dwellers, Mount Airy epitomized the vast 2,400-square-mile rural vacationland in which it was just a small glittering dot. It was a so-called super-resort, its afternoons scheduled solid with games and contests, and its nights reserved for showroom entertainment and frolicking in the quintessential heart-shaped tubs.
For years, the regular ritual in the white mansion on the hill was a cocktail party to welcome that weekend’s headliner — everyone from Bob Hope to Engelbert Humperdinck performed in Mount Airy’s Crystal Room in the ’60s and ’70s. The soiree would be hosted, even after she had handed over control of the resort to her three nephews, by Suzanne Martens, the “First Lady of the Poconos,” who would let her guests gather in the marbled entry foyer before she paraded down the long, curving central staircase in gown and jewels. “Very Sunset Boulevard,” the redoubtable television personality Joe Franklin remarked once.
Like most declines, the death of Mount Airy happened first slowly and then all at once. Over several decades, air travel got cheaper, and a mere car ride to the mountains didn’t seem like a real vacation anymore. The owners bet on growth at the exact wrong time, borrowed big to build a new hotel wing, and were subsequently crushed under heavy debt just as an economic recession hit.
Things got bad quickly.
People who knew Emil Wagner well were aware of a subtle and ready sense of humor, but also a strong streak of pride. As he placed the barrel of the 38-caliber handgun to his head that night, Wagner was hours away from a dreaded trip to the Monroe County Courthouse, where he would be forced, after years of tiptoeing on the edge of insolvency, to give up his resort.
“Emil knew he was going to lose the resort, and it was like losing his child,” says a friend. “He didn’t have any family or any kids, so unfortunately, that was the end of him, too.” Squeezing the trigger, Emil Wagner chose to die before Mount Airy did.
EIGHT YEARS HAVE GONE by since Wagner’s death and the symbolic demise of the old Poconos. This fall, what could become a shiny symbol for the new Poconos emerges with the opening of the renamed Mount Airy Casino Resort, an expensive bet by a media-shy mogul that the future of the mountain vacationland can be secured by tens of thousands of slot-machine players. A completely rebuilt Mount Airy, designed to become a kind of Borgata-among-the-trees, ushers in a new industry — one that might have saved the old Mount Airy had it come sooner.
The man behind the revival — a junk magnate from the Scranton area named Louis DeNaples — knows a little something about turning broken-down wrecks into money mines. In his own version of a classic Horatio Alger story, DeNaples — who grew up poor, one of nine children — tells the tale of buying a junked car for $18 when he was a teen, literally shouldering it up the steep hills to his house over the course of two days, then stripping off every piece that he could sell. He gave some of the profit to his family, bought another junker, and repeated the process, many, many times. As the years passed and he married and started his own large family (seven kids eventually), DeNaples built a thriving kingdom of junk, one that was reportedly good for $5 million per year.
But that was just his starter company. Somewhere along the way, Louis DeNaples had the astute business revelation that there could be untold riches in handling stuff that people threw away. In the late ’80s he opened the Keystone Sanitary Landfill just outside Scranton, at the conjunction of two highways that led to the great garbage manufacturers: New Jersey and New York to the east, and Philadelphia to the south. The landfill made DeNaples even richer. He’s now estimated to be worth $750 million.
In the dark days of Mount Airy’s decline, Emil Wagner and his cousins had approached this nearby deep-pocketed businessman with a plea to help them survive.
“We knew Mr. DeNaples; he was a dear friend of the family,” says Frank Martens, one of Suzanne Martens’s nephews, who divided the responsibilities of running Mount Airy. Could DeNaples help the family get out from under its debt? “We really wanted it to happen, but at that time it wasn’t feasible for him,” Martens remembers.
Things changed. In 2004, soon after Pennsylvania politicians legalized gambling in the state, DeNaples bought the boarded-up Mount Airy for $25 million. A few months later, he sold everything salvageable at a two-day auction attended by tens of thousands of people, many of whom showed up fueled by nostalgia for the old resort.
DeNaples soon unveiled plans for a new Poconos resort with gambling at its heart-shaped heart. Leaving aside the pesky detail that he needed to apply and compete for one of a small number of gaming licenses, the fabulously wealthy junk man announced that he would spend — he, alone; there were no outside investors listed — about $400 million to build a 200-room high-end hotel with 2,500 slot machines. And that was just the start. Later development would add 200 more hotel rooms, conference facilities, and space for even more slot machines. Future plans envision homes and townhouses clustered around little themed village squares, all adding up to a possible price tag of $1.2 billion. DeNaples started building before he was awarded a license.
This certainly isn’t John and Suzanne Martens’s Poconos, though the man who will run the Mount Airy casino operations, Philadelphia native (and Atlantic City veteran) Joe D’Amato, says he’s confident the new Mount Airy will come to symbolize the Poconos as strongly as the old resort.
Yet even before the old Mount Airy entered its final decline, the Poconos had begun a huge transformation, experiencing more than a decade-long growth spurt that has changed the nature of the region in ways that are both annoyingly obvious and subtle but significant. There are now traffic jams on what were once quiet country roads. A construction boom helped create jobs, but also sent taxes spiraling upward. With tens of thousands of new homes planned for the coming years, the strange urbanization of this once rural retreat will continue, raising a crucial question posed recently by the Poconos’ daily newspaper: Will you still want to live here?
Or visit? For a while it seemed that the ubiquitous advertising slogan Emil Wagner spent so much to spread could be transferred easily to Louis DeNaples — the once-poor kid from Scranton seemed poised to become “the new host with the most in the Poconos.” But as events played out this summer and insinuations of unsavory affiliations in DeNaples’s past led to a grand jury investigation that raised the specter of him losing his gaming license, it appeared that Louis DeNaples — who doesn’t smoke, drink or gamble — might be the high roller with the most to lose.
FOR MORE THAN A MONTH in the late days of summer, I drove around the Poconos, stopping at inns and resorts, restaurants and offices, trying to get an idea of what the hell was going on here. On a few trips, I just drove, realizing the immense size and diverse nature of a region where one trip can take you from a beautifully renovated 19th-century inn in quaint Milford to a nudist colony in more hardscrabble Palmerton; or from the whiny-motorboat-and-Jet-Ski-covered Lake Wallenpaupack to a calm canoe on the Delaware River at the Water Gap.
I thought I knew the Poconos. Like Louis DeNaples, I grew up nearby, in Scranton. I’ve hiked in the parks here, boated and swum in the lakes and pools, performed as a musician in a number of the honeymoon resorts. Somewhere there’s a photo of me cavorting in one of the two-story-tall Jacuzzis built to look like champagne glasses. Ten years ago, I spent months looking in vain for a permanent weekend house here. Now, a decade later, the Poconos seemed both mundanely familiar and startlingly changed. So I went to see the man they call “Mr. Poconos” for a briefing.
Robert Uguccioni was about to retire as executive director of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau after four decades in the job. He’s a squat, bearish guy with a gruff friendliness. And he’s quite a talker, one who, considering his long career as a promoter, is surprisingly frank. He began by telling me that just five or six years ago, “We were closing more places than we were opening. We had a lot of issues — time-share issues, quality of product. We had a tacky image, with the heart-shaped tubs and the champagne towers that became a symbol of tackiness and Old Resort.”
That image had already led some in the region’s tourism business to form a kind of breakaway republic on the Poconos’ northeast corner, where the renegades envisioned a more upscale and eco-friendly vacation area that they were calling the Upper Delaware River Region. And a few resorts to the northwest — including a posh new destination spa near Hawley — didn’t mention the Poconos at all in their marketing, preferring to be in what they called the “Lake Region” of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Poconos bristled a bit at the thought of a secessionist movement. Prospects have turned for the better recently, Uguccioni insisted, and ran through a litany of new projects on the books, from a spate of family-friendly water-park resorts to some new non-tourism businesses. “I think we’re at a point right now that the future looks bright,” he said early in our long conversation. “But there are some real issues here.”
We were sitting in a renovated brick building on Main Street in Stroudsburg, the seat of Monroe County, a county whose population increased nearly 75 percent over the past 17 years. In Pike County, just next door, the population more than doubled over the same period.
Uguccioni calls it “urban crawl,” but “urban rush” is probably a better way to describe what happened. About 15 years ago, developers and builders started buying ads in the New York media promising middle- and lower-income New Yorkers crushed by high rents and a hopelessly expensive metro real estate market the chance to grab the good life in the country. Homes could be had for a fraction of the prices near New York; the mortgage payments would barely exceed city rents, in even the unfashionable boroughs. And because the Poconos were less than 90 miles away, you could keep your higher-paying city job and commute.
“You see those ads in the newspaper that you can own a home for $895 a month,” says Mario Scavello, the state representative in the newly created 176th Legislative District in the Poconos, himself a 1986 refugee from the Bronx. “You’re renting in New York and you say, ‘Wow, what a deal! I’ll make the commute.’” After Scavello moved his family to Mount Pocono, he commuted up to six hours a day for years.
But for a lot of those city transplants, the Poconos have turned out to be anything but the promised land. Before the current nationwide lending crisis, Monroe County seemed to be a test market for predatory lending practices, and there were many stories of inflated home appraisals, fudged mortgage applications, and any number of deceptions. A spike in foreclosures — over a recent 10-year period, a fifth of the homes in Monroe County were in foreclosure at one time or another — has prompted prosecutions, studies, hearings and, no doubt, untold suffering.
Whoever was to blame, it’s becoming clear that the mountains have been changed by the influx of urbanites, many of them city-bred minorities entering a previously homogenous rural area. And the peculiar circumstances created by a commuting culture — that daily six hours of driving isn’t uncommon — is starting to change the rather innocent nature of the region. Folks who brought their children to the country for a nice home, good schools and a better life are hardly ever home to see their kids.
So with a lot of teenagers spending a lot of unsupervised time without transportation in rural communities — the kids are said to call their cozy country homes “green prisons” — the need for some connection has led to what local police describe as a noticeable surge in gang activity, like tagging and initiation crimes. “We have people moving in who are great people and really help the economy of this area,” Bob Uguccioni told me. “But they bring some of the problems of the cities with them.”
About a week before I went to visit Uguccioni, I was driving through the area and picked up a copy of the Pocono Record, the region’s top newspaper. The lead story told of three very urban-style crimes that had happened in the Poconos the previous day: an armed robbery at an ATM; a spray of 9mm bullets at a housing development with the innocent-sounding name of Pocono Farms East (no one was hit); and the arrest of 12 adults, after a seven-month sting operation, on charges of intent to deliver drugs including marijuana, cocaine and crack. What really struck me after reading the story was the resigned and ironic nature of the headline: ALL IN A DAY’S CRIME.
I called the woman who wrote the story, Susan Koomar, the Record’s senior managing editor, and we met for lunch not far from the site of the ATM robbery.
“I hate to be too negative,” said Koomar, “but we’re at this point where we kind of have the worst of a rural area — no infrastructure, really limited public water and public sewers, bad roads, not enough social services — and we really have the worst of the city: crimes increasing, traffic, issues that we’re not equipped to deal with.”
The editor had brought along her colleague Howard Frank, and over the course of lunch they tried to make sense of their adopted home, but eventually decided it was impossible. “Right now,” Koomar said, “it’s schizophrenic around here.” They told stories of local township officials who wore camouflage hunting caps to official meetings where they dealt with multimillion-dollar development proposals presented by big-city lawyers in fancy tailored suits. There was a tale of a family living in a development with the idyllic name “A Pocono Country Place” who felt the need to hire a bouncer for their daughter’s Sweet 16 party. Reportedly, after the bouncer was stabbed in an altercation, nobody — not even the parents — would help the police.
And then there were the really crazy things that happened recently.
Last May, a cell of six suspected terrorists was arrested in a rented home on Big Bass Lake and charged with planning to attack Fort Dix and kill soldiers. Then, in July, a huge police force mobilized near Mount Pocono to search for two men who were suspects in the shooting of two New York City policemen. In the midst of the manhunt, a New York Times reporter wrote a story speculating that the Poconos had somehow become the kind of place to which the kind of people who shoot cops would run. Both men were caught in the woods not far from Mount Pocono.
“We’ve always said ‘Escape to the Poconos,’” Bob Uguccioni said, “but that’s not what we meant.”
LOUIS DENAPLES has said that he looked all over the state when he was searching for a site for his casino. Ultimately, he came back to the Poconos because it was an established resort area near his hometown, and, as he told a panel of regulators, “It needs to be picked up.” (DeNaples declined to be interviewed for this article.)
After he announced his plans to pump nearly half a billion dollars into a rural county, DeNaples was met with little local opposition, probably because the Governor and legislators had the good sense to promise that most of the gaming tax revenues would be dedicated to property tax relief.
But DeNaples needed more than the goodwill of the locals; he had to convince a seven-member panel to give him a license. He was competing with 13 other casino proposals from around the state, including one from the new owner of an old-line resort called Pocono Manor, just down the road. The Scranton businessman went on what for him was a charm offensive.
Over the years, as his empire grew (there are now some 90 different businesses worth $2 billion), DeNaples managed to keep a low public profile around Scranton, which only fueled speculation of what he was really like. I’ve been collecting DeNaples stories for nearly two decades, ever since I heard about a local television reporter named Larry Sparano who was caught on DeNaples’s property with a camera crew trying to film how scrapped autos were polluting a creek. “Get used to the unemployment line!” Sparano remembers DeNaples saying. Sure enough, soon after that, Sparano lost his job. He pursued an independent quest to expose DeNaples’s various alleged abuses, even starting his own newspaper, but he was a mosquito biting an elephant.
In my collection of stories was the tale of how DeNaples had taken one vacation in his life — flying his family to Disney World — and got so restless that after a day, he left his wife with the kids and a wad of money and returned to his auto-parts office. Another had it that during the lavish renovation of his home on the hill above his old junkyard, DeNaples ordered gargantuan baseboard trim because his son liked to ride his motorcycle in the house. It didn’t matter to me that some of these stories clearly were either patently untrue or wildly exaggerated. Taken together, they came to create a DeNaples mystique.
As the actual Louis DeNaples stepped gingerly into public view over the past year, the picture that emerged was of an old-fashioned guy obsessed with work and business, church and family. “My children, they call me ‘old-school,’” he told the casino commission. “Old-school I may be.” After years of ducking the press, he agreed to meet with an editor and a reporter from the Scranton Times-Tribune — but only in the presence of one of his lawyers. At one point, the hometown journalists asked him if it was true that he essentially ran the whole of Lackawanna County. DeNaples said no.
He did give a glimpse at his daily life: awake at 3 a.m. to survey his businesses; church every morning at 6:30; in his office for the rest of the day — his wife often brings him lunch; dinner at home, and in bed by 9 p.m. No TV, no reading, no movies. It was business magnate as bore.
As the casino licensing process continued, DeNaples was forced to appear in public and undergo a level of scrutiny to which he was unaccustomed. He now had the counsel of the Philadelphia public relations firm run by former Rendell aide Kevin Feeley. Somehow, the image that came into focus was a bizarre mix of Mother Teresa and Machiavelli.
DeNaples had enough of a reputation for spreading money around to politicians of all stripes — one count estimated that DeNaples and two of his partnerships gave a total of at least $1 million just to state officials from 2000 to 2005 — that the Scranton Times-Tribune was prompted to compare him to an ATM. He also was known around Scranton for his affiliations with various nonprofit boards and his large contributions to a number of local institutions. Now, preening for the gaming commission, DeNaples let reports emerge about his many smaller, more personalized gifts — philanthropy that his daughter would describe as a “commitment to improving the human condition, one charitable act at a time.” It was a bold move of self-aggrandizement for this low-key guy — and a sign of how high the stakes had become in his own personal gamble on gaming.
At a public forum early in 2006 at the Split Rock resort, DeNaples showed up with an unusual entourage. Howard Frank, covering the meeting for the Pocono Record, just had to tell his editor. “I remember Howard calling me on the cell phone,” Susan Koomar recalls, “and saying, ‘My God, he’s got a priest with him! And a nun!’”
The priest, a childhood friend named Joseph Sica, would accompany DeNaples to almost all of his casino licensing hearings, becoming what PR man Feeley would describe as a “talisman.” But perhaps not an entirely lucky charm. Although DeNaples was awarded the gaming license, lucky Father Sica would soon have to appear before a grand jury investigating his rich friend’s links to organized crime and whether DeNaples lied about them to the casino board.
Louis DeNaples needed to come off as something of an altar boy, because despite his great business success and repute as a philanthropist, he is dogged by a 1978 felony conviction related to overcharging for cleanup operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes. Under the rules, the offense occurred long enough ago that he was able to apply for a casino license, but it left him open to increased scrutiny when the commission’s investigative wing performed its required due diligence on the applicant’s “good character.” There have long been allegations that DeNaples has connections to reputed Northeast Pennsylvania crime boss William D’Elia.
The legislation that set up a gambling commission in Pennsylvania will never be considered a case study of good government. The resulting operation seems rife with conflicts of interest and appears designed to be murky to public scrutiny. (For instance, the commission has refused to make public the more than 250 letters of recommendation that Louis DeNaples produced to bolster his license application.) In what former casino commission chairman Tad Decker claimed was an extensive investigation into DeNaples’s past, the commission’s staff found nothing that would preclude a license. But because of a bureaucratic dispute with the state police, the commission wasn’t privy to information about ongoing, sensitive law enforcement investigations. And it turned out there was an investigation into the DeNaples-D’Elia connection that led a grand jury in Dauphin County to look into whether DeNaples lied to the casino commission. If he did, he could lose the license.
As reports of the grand jury investigation emerged, DeNaples returned to his habit of ducking the press, and his spokesman, Feeley, repeatedly denied there was any connection between DeNaples and organized crime.
Late this summer, as workmen rushed in double shifts to finish construction of Mount Airy, Louis DeNaples displayed his remarkably bad instincts for public relations by nominating five people to an oversight panel that was supposed to be independent and monitor the operation of Mount Airy. Among the nominees was an old friend who served on the board of DeNaples’s Scranton-based bank. After a few state representatives complained that the proposed panel was hardly independent, four of the nominees quickly withdrew their names from consideration, and a newly named panel temporarily delayed the casino’s planned mid-October opening because of the time needed for required background checks.
“The buck stops here,” Louis DeNaples had told commissioners during a hearing. Now the owner himself was certainly slowing things down.
ONE MUGGY late-summer day, I took what had come to be a routine drive in the new Poconos — quiet stretches rolling easily on a leafy, sun-dappled road, then stuck in an inexplicable traffic jam — and finally arrived at a compound of construction trailers just up the hill from the new Mount Airy Casino Resort. I was meeting Lisa DeNaples, one of Louis’s five daughters, for a tour.
Lisa DeNaples is attractive and polished, a more ethnic Cate Blanchett. She has practiced dentistry and studied law and will serve as the family point person at her father’s huge new investment. We donned hard hats and safety glasses and traversed a muddy road down to the new casino hotel.
DeNaples talked of the research trips the design team had done when planning the new resort. They were comparing it in style and feel not to, say, the converted horse-racing track near Scranton that is already drawing tens of thousands of gamblers, but more “upscale Vegas,” like the Bellagio or Venetian, or Atlantic City’s Borgata.
The hotel and casino, even in their unfinished state, were obviously going to be nice places, plush yet modest, and reminiscent of an older, more genteel Poconos, with lots of fieldstone and rich woods and terrazzo tile and — in the hotel, anyway — lots of glass to let in the significant outdoors.
Louis DeNaples has said many times that his Mount Airy resort won’t compete with the rest of the Poconos, but will complement it. It’s possible that his vision for a new Poconos polished with expensive amenities and a cool casino floor may be tinted too much by nostalgia for a more innocent time that has long passed. It may be too respectful of the ghost of Emil Wagner. And not everyone is certain that DeNaples will “pick up” the Poconos. Though he’s happy for the new local jobs, State Rep Mario Scavello says, “I worry that gambling could bring in all kinds of social problems that we’ll be unable to control.”
During our tour of the new Mount Airy, Lisa DeNaples revealed little about her father except for the fact that he used to take the family on day trips to the dinky little amusement park nearby called Memorytown (now shuttered except for a tavern). Then, as we were climbing a muddy road back to the construction trailers, she promised that her father would make sure everything was done correctly and on time. “He’s a driver,” she said. Then she said that again: “He’s a driver.” And then a third time.
Forces beyond DeNaples are driving the Poconos. They are strong and contradictory, and I suspect that if I come back 10 years from now, this place will once again seem mundanely familiar and changed beyond all recognition. The essence of the Poconos has always been a mixture of novelty and nostalgia.
During our tour of the new novelty, the reborn and refashioned Mount Airy, Lisa DeNaples told a story about shopping at Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan. The salesclerk asked where she was from. When she told him “The Poconos,” he started singing the old Mount Airy Lodge jingle.
John Marchese last wrote for Philadelphia about the rebirth of North Broad Street.