Proposed Mini-Casino At Nittany Mall Gets Strong Support At Public Hearing

Written By Kevin Shelly on August 19, 2021
Ira Lubert State College mini-casino

This week, Ira Lubert, the applicant for a proposed mini-casino in College Township, got a warm, relatively brief, and decidedly upbeat public hearing.

Approval of his proposal seems inevitable. He wants to site the proposed casino at a former Macy’s location at the Nittany Mall. The site is at the intersections of Route 150 and Route 26, one mile off the I-99 corridor, the major highway in the area. Some of Penn State University‘s facilities are in the township.

College Township borders the better-known State College Borough, which had opted out as a mini-casino location. On the other hand, township officials actively courted casino development, tweaking its zoning to make the vacant mall space the only location where a mini-casino could go.

And why not? Lubert is practically a native son of Happy Valley.

State College is a prime location

College Township’s mall is a primary anchor of centrally located Happy Valley, aptly located in Centre County.

By design, Penn State University, its 40,000 students, 22,000 employees, and its adjoining local communities in Happy Valley are at the epicenter of the sprawling Pennsylvania interior.

The region is a hub of suburban amenities. They are located in a tidy bowl of development. Farmland and heavily forested low mountains surround it. But the area is also tapped by major highways.

That’s ideal for allowing access by an influx of perhaps 100,000 devoted football fans who fill every one of the 106,572 seats in Beaver Stadium, home of the Penn State football team.

On football Saturdays, the area swells to become the third-largest city in the Commonwealth, behind only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The casino applicant, businessman Lubert‘s SC Gaming, Op Co LLC, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board members, and all but two of those who spoke during the polite and receptive hearing were positively glowing.

The two negative voices spoke for themselves, not organizations, and opposed the project on moral or religious grounds. One called those who support  gambling “the Robinhood Mafia.”

The proposal’s economic and traffic studies, filed in April, were only glancingly mentioned at the hearing, signaling their glowing assessments passed muster.

Lubert bought the last available mini-casino license in PA

While Lubert, 71, is known for his real estate and development work in Philadelphia, he is in many ways a native son who paid just more than $10 million for the right to the license. An additional $2.5 million means he can also host 30 table games.

Lubert was a part of the development group which opened Valley Forge Casino in 2012.

The mini-license he bought became available when Mount Airy Casino was denied a license in November of 2019. While as many as 10 mini-casinos were envisioned, only five are getting built, and Lubert owns the licensing rights to the final location.

The other mini-casinos in Pennsylvania,  Live! Casino Pittsburgh and Hollywood Casino York, are mall space rehabs. Hollywood Morgantown is expected to open by the end of the year and the planned Parx Casino Shippensburg in a vacant big box store, and finally Lubert’s proposal.

Lubert has Penn State roots and connections

Lubert is a 1973 PSU grad. He has a home in the area, owns several properties, and also has two downtown State College businesses. He served for nearly two decades as a PSU trustee.

In a region where it seems as if every third car sports a Nittany Lion sticker, and where more than half of the male population seems to wear PSU logo clothing, those ties count.

“It gave me my start,” he said of his connection to the university and the area during a conversation with PlayPennsylvania after the hearing.

While there were talks aimed at having Bally’s eventually manage the casino, no agreement is yet signed, Lubert’s lawyer Adrian King said, hedging on a Bally’s Corporation announcement made in January that they would manage the property.

Accompanying Lubert at the hearing was Lubert’s choice to oversee construction and eventually management of the property, Eric Pearson, a former Valley Forge Casino CEO who has already bought a home in Happy Valley and runs the consulting company, Copper Star Gaming.

Support includes government and tourism officials, including Corman

Leading off testimony supporting Lubert’s plan was state Sen. Jake Corman, the President pro tempore of the Senate, where he had previously been majority leader. The top-ranking Republican lives in Happy Valley and holds a degree from PSU.

Corman once opposed building additional casino properties. But he said he is now a supporter of the project. He pointed to additional coming development, such as an Aldi planned for near the casino.

L. Eric Bernier, a township official, and a PSU grad, told the gaming board his community had tweaked the zoning regulations to make the emptying mall the one location where a casino could be located.

He welcomed the investment while emphasizing local finances are sound as they stand and not dependent on the casino.

Polly Welch, the mall manager, believes the casino will bring new retail businesses and bring the mall back to life. Occupancy now is down to about 50 percent.

Local chamber and tourism officials also praised the prospects for the project. They contended it would give visitors something more to hold them in the area – a “sticky” attraction.

The gaming regulators also got 49 written comments.

Hoping for a turnaround

Beth, a 22-year PSU employee, stopped going to the mall after Christmas Eve in 2018.

So few stores remained open then that it was too depressing. She hopes that changes.

For now, she gambles in Maryland, largely because casinos there are non-smoking, but she wants to see what happens locally.

She also hopes the university reaches out and works with Lubert. That’s natural since there is a casino management club within the hospitality track.

The local daily newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, appears to have published just one letter opposing the project and only lightly covered the proposal.

On the other hand, the university’s Collegian newspaper editorialized for the project.

The editorial began:

“Enter the grounds of Nittany Mall and you might be struck by the sheer emptiness of it all. Especially to those of us who grew up going to shiny shopping malls, the relative nothingness of Nittany Mall conjures feelings more suited for the uncanny valley than Happy Valley.”

In closing, the editorial made this argument:

“With more tourists come more economic activities, and with more economic activity, comes further economic growth and development.” 

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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