Can a novel mini-casino save a dying mall in the face of the retail apocalypse?
The ongoing revamp of an empty Sears retail space at the 31-year-old York Galleria Mall in South Central Pennsylvania’s York County should provide at least a partial answer.
Online retail is killing the mall. Can a mini-casino save it?
The mall has been shedding customers, losing anchor stores, and smaller tenants for years.
On a recent visit, the sprawling mall was nearly empty. Seats at the food court were empty at lunch hour. Store employees, with almost no shoppers to greet, spent time scrolling cellphones.
The casino, while attached to the mall, had no direct entrance to the retail space. But it is hoped foot traffic will tick up without creating traffic or parking issues. Changes in roadways are part of the rehab and not funded by the host community.
The mini-casino should have 500 slot machines, no more than 30 table games, a sportsbook, and off-track betting space, as well as dining and beverage services. Poker is not in the opening mix of offerings. Ten additional table games could get approved after the first year for an additional $2.5 million.
Mini-casino makeover pegged for Oct. 9
Work on the Sears rehab should finish Oct. 9.
While there is no official opening announced, the Galleria location will likely be the first mini-casino location to open since satellite casino legislation was approved as part of the gambling expansion law in October 2017.
The chosen site for the satellite casino is in Springettsbury Township, a suburb northeast of the city of York, the county seat. The area is known for making barbells and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
A satellite casino of Penn National
The Galleria location is a satellite of Penn National’s Hollywood Casino in Grantville, which is 45 miles from the mall location. Penn paid an astonishing $50.1 million for the license at the mall, the priciest of the five mini-casino auctions held by PA.
The last decade had proved rough for the Galleria, which sits at the intersection of U.S. Route 30, which runs from east to west, and PA Route 24, which runs from north to south and links to Maryland.
Not only did Sears close, but also J.C. Penney, Bon-Ton, and a Ruby Tuesday restaurant, which once was a social magnet for the mall.
Only Boscov’s remained among the mall’s anchors. Many other merchants, such as Gap, left or renegotiated lower lease payments to afford to stay.
From threat to opportunity
The neighboring city of York, which briefly served as the capital of the United States in colonial times, is a small industrial city of about 44,000. Five suburbs, including Springettsbury, surround York. Taken together, the metro population is more than 108,000, making Greater York the 11th largest city in PA.
Local official Blanda Nace has a unique perspective. He’s a native of the region and remembers when the Galleria “was a thing.”
As a previous resident and supervisor of Springettsbury, he had initially voted to “opt-out” – not allow the mini-casino to locate in the township. He wasn’t alone. With more information, though, he and most other township supervisors saw the satellite as an opportunity, and they welcomed the mini-casino.
Now he’s the Chief Opportunity Development Officer for the city of York, as well as a resident.
If you build it, will they come?
And Nace, who comes from an engineering background, sees the coming casino as an economic boon for the entire area. As a crossroads location, he envisions visits from those in Gettysburg, Hershey, Maryland, Harrisburg, and Lancaster.
But he knows there is a range of opinions about adding a casino: Those vehemently opposed, those who are excited, and a middle group who have concerns but are willing to see how it plays out.
Traffic was the biggest concern, but having Penn National shoulder the cost of infrastructure changes mitigated that worry to some extent, he said. He doubts a heavy casino day can come close to Black Friday mall traffic.
He knows the local commercial real estate market is abuzz. In fact, the empty Bon-Ton store finally attracted a tenant who will rehab the vacant space as a self-storage facility.
But he admits since there has never been a mini-casino in the state before, there are lots of unknowns.
“We’re kind of flying blind,” he told PlayPennsylvania.
Lots of mixed reactions and uncertainty
A mall chain store manager who shopped at the mall 20 years ago when it was hopping busy and returned to manage a business a dozen years ago has mixed feelings.
She doesn’t gamble, and she worries about the easy access and creating problem gamblers.
Without an entrance directly into the mall, she doubts foot traffic will increase. A Gold’s Gym filled a vacant portion of Penney’s, but it has no entry to the mall and has made no difference in the number of shoppers, she said.
But she still holds out hope.
Tisha Reed, co-owner of an independent candy store, has watched nine fellow merchants leave during her two years at the mall. She got a rent reduction because foot traffic is so light.
“Nobody knows what to think,” she said as she slathered strawberries in chocolate. “Mall management needs to do something.”
She’s not sure if a mini-casino is the answer.
Could the mini-casino provide a local economic boost?
Kelly Rheinhold had bus-tripped to Atlantic City twice a year for years on end, but she thinks that may stop once the mini-casino opens about 15 minutes from her home. After all, she already has a Hollywood Casino rewards card, though she seldom goes to Grantville.
She works two jobs and said the local economy is “not great.” Rheinhold thinks the casino could provide needed employment.
And she hopes the casino draws additional mall customers.
“Nobody comes here anymore,” she said, walking from the near-empty food court.
Will the state’s first mini-casino inject life into the local economy? Can the York Galleria mall be saved by a mini-casino? If development goes according to plan, these local residents will soon get the answers.