For now, it seems news that a public input hearing on the proposed Parx Shippensburg mini-casino which is scheduled for May 20 at the Luhrs Performing Arts Center of Shippensburg University has spawned mostly a yawn.
Well, except for maybe university student Tyler Yoseff and his Theta Chi frat brother, Cody Nelson, both excited about gambling and sports. More on them later.
A week after the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board or PGCB announced the hearing, the twice-weekly local newspaper, the Shippensburg News-Chronicle, posted information about the forum. The same day the publication founded in 1844 covered a breaking news report of a raging fence fire requiring three fire companies to extinguish. Neither the forum nor the blaze stories elicited any reader reactions online.
Two weeks before, the publication ran a pro-casino letter of support based on jobs and the local economy. Again, zero reader reaction.
Maybe the citizens of Shippensburg are too chill to clap back in public. Or maybe they truly don’t give a fig one way or the other.
Collective shoulder shrugs pretty much sum up what I got when I recently roamed the township and asked locals and university students about the prospects of a casino coming to the town of 5,429 residents, plus 5,274 university undergraduate students within its borders.
Location in Shippensburg means dealing with a college town
Shippensburg Township is the definition of a college town. The university campus takes about 65 percent of the township’s property off the tax rolls, but the school is also by far the biggest local employer and major economic driver.
The parking lot for the football stadium adjoins a dairy farm. A weekend ago, the big event in town was a chainsaw carving festival. Think “Hooterville,” but with a small downtown, several dive bars, and a mid-size university.
The town is nearly 94% white, according to the 2010 Census. The median age is quite young, just 20-years-old. A whopping 68.5% counted by the Census were between the ages of 18 to 24. More than 8% of families and nearly 37% of the overall population were below the poverty line.
Details of the planned hearing
The PGCB plans a hybrid hearing at the university, with both live and video components, beginning at 4 p.m. on the 20th from the 1,500-seat theatre at the arts center.
Details, including COVID-19 precautions and how to register to participate, are available via the state’s gaming site. The deadline to register is noon on Monday, May 17. The live hearing will be available via the board’s YouTube channel.
A previous hearing way back in 2019, but for a since-abandoned location, lasted three hours and featured a point-counterpoint discussion of the proposal. In that hearing, advocates touted the economics and opposition from the human services sector and religious groups worried about projected downsides, especially quality of life issues.
Those issues are likely to resurface at the new hearing, despite quiet during the lead-up.
Limestone geology led to a long delay in Shippensburg
The proposed satellite casino for Parx, a huge full-sized casino with an adjoining horse racing track just outside Philadelphia, is at 250 South Conestoga Road, a Shippensburg location away from both the university and the small downtown area.
Parx bid just more than $8.1 million for the right to build there back in February of 2019. The discovery of geological formations of limestone prone to sinkholes sunk the original site location and delayed plans.
The new site is close to PA Rt. 11 and also I-81.
Mini-casinos part of 2017 gaming expansion law
Mini-casinos, by design, are meant to serve second-tier markets at some distance – 40 miles or more – from full-sized casinos.
All told, there should eventually be five mini-casinos in PA, including Shippensburg.
PA lawmakers, lured by the prospect of raising big bucks without hiking taxes, had hoped for 10 satellites, but bidding for the licenses turned cold and halted as the market saturated.
Here’s the satellite casino lineup:
- Live! Casino Pittsburgh is already open. It is a mall rehab.
- Another mini is opening in August. Hollywood York will be 65 miles away (also a mall rehab.)
- Hollywood Morgantown is about 170 miles away and should open in November.
- And Bally’s mini-casino near State College is in the early planning stage and could open in late 2022. It is also a mall rehab.
- The Shippensburg site is also likely to open in 2022, but earlier than Bally’s with its planning further along. The planned rehab of a stand-alone big box store is relatively simple.
Collectively, bids for mini licenses raised $127.7 million. That figure does not include ongoing fees and eventual income revenue.
Parx satellite casino site in Shippensburg
The proposed site is a long-empty and desolate Lowe’s home improvement center atop an isolated hilltop.
While the dreary building is set for rehab, and the parking will expand to more than 700 spaces, the work is not expected to include any major structural changes. That means the property could open within a year, according to local media.
The former Lowe’s site faces an active shopping center across the street with a Walmart and a liquor store, making it a popular stop on the university-run shuttle bus.
The rehabbed site will hold up to 600 seats at slot machines and video table games. Poker and live table games are not in the mix. Plans call for a 250-seat restaurant, depicted as a Chickie’s and Pete’s in renderings. A retail sportsbook has also been mentioned.
The mini should take up over half of the former Lowe’s, or about 77,500 square feet. The rest of the building is expected to become retail space.
Parx has projected the completed casino will provide the equivalent of 125 full- and part-time jobs with average pay for full-time positions estimated at $48,700. By comparison, the median income for a household in the township is just $27,661.
Parx has estimated the annual economic impact from the casino at $43 million.
Lifelong resident embraces casino development
Lifelong Shippensburg resident Stacy Waters works at a medical practice across a highway from the former Lowe’s, a store where she shopped just once. She’ll visit much more frequently once a casino opens.
“I have no problem with a casino in Shippensburg,” she said, wrapping up her lunch break in the parking lot of the casino site.
A modest recreational gambler who sets a budget before each casino visit, Waters expects she’ll go to the mini rather than making the long drive to a full-sized casino.
A proud townie, she’s not certain what the attraction will be for university students, whom she called the full phrase for PIAs. The legal gambling age in PA is 21, and many college students are younger than that.
Across the way in the Walmart shopping center, a mini-van mom from nearby Newville said she “could care less” that a casino is coming.
While she does not gamble, spending her money instead on her four children, the busy mom added she was “not opposed.”
Student reactions range from blasé to excitement
At just 19-years-old, student journalist Adam Beam can’t legally gamble yet, though he makes occasional friendly wagers among friends.
“I definitely see why people gamble,” said the communications/journalism major from Schuylkill County, PA’s once-booming coal region.
Beam writes features and entertainment for the weekly student newspaper. He also delivers a weekly world news segment on the campus TV station aimed at Shippensburg, “the cornerstone of North America,” he said with a knowing wink when referencing the small township’s insulation from world events.
His station, SUTV, has briefly mentioned the local mini-casino getting approved by local politicians. However, the school’s newspaper and online news outlet, The Slate, has yet to mention the casino at all.
Beam thinks that could be because there’s been “no negative reaction, no negativity at all” to the casino proposal among the students he knows.
And he also thinks the casino could offer student internships, job opportunities, and the prospect of honing his public relations skills if Parx works with the university.
“I think how the casino affects us economically is what’s important.”
Beam also believes the issue of underage drinking is a greater worry than underage gambling at his school.
Student-athletes can’t gamble on sports
A group of four women’s soccer players, fresh from practice with their Division 2 team, shrugged with indifference at questions about a coming casino even though three were above the legal age to gamble.
As student-athletes, they are not allowed to wager on sports. And besides, as one explained, “I have no money.”
One had played an Atlantic City slot machine once – a single spin – while attending a party. She lost and walked away. Her boyfriend bets on sports, so she knows there is an appeal to those her age.
But the young women pointed to a spray-painted banner across the street touting hoped-for baseball victories against a rival state school, West Chester University. The banner, with made-up odds meant to embarrass West Chester, prominently mentioned FanDuel’s Sportsbook.
“Ask for Yoseff,” the students said in unison. They quickly added he came up with the mocking banner and he really likes sports betting.
Sports nuts are lit
Across the street, I picked my way around beer cans littering the front lawn and walkway.
Beyond, the mocking banner hung across the porch. I rapped on the door. Once, twice, three times. No answer.
A student arrived to visit a friend in the shared house. He said he’d go around back and see if he could get me Yoseff for an interview.
Instead, Yoseff’s pal Cody Nelson (pictured, right) emerged, a near-mythical sixth-year student studying marketing. Blinking in the sunlight, he looked a bit rumpled even though it was well after the noon hour.
Seeing Nelson, I imagined him telling the women’s softball team he coaches, “There’s no crying in baseball!” just like the always disheveled and hungover manager Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own.
Sports, he said, “is my biggest passion.”
Ship, as the Raiders dub themselves, had four games coming up against the WCU Golden Rams, he explained.
After I left, the Raiders dropped their first two games 11-8 and 14-2. And then lost the third game, 12-1. And finally, the fourth game, 13-12, Ship’s last game of the season.
Maybe there is crying in baseball after all.
Nelson’s housemate, Tyler Yoseff, had come up with the fake line banner.
It showed West Chester with losing odds as a way to get the Ram’s goat before the first pitch, Nelson explained. The student coach isn’t allowed to gamble since he’s involved with sports. But Nelson has a definite interest in the prospect of gambling on sports. His hometown is just 33 miles away, so he could easily visit when the casino opens.
One student is ready to make parlay bets
Finally, Yoseff emerged gingerly, having scraped up his leg the day before.
He mentioned FanDuel is his go-to gambling site, though he has other online sports betting accounts. Yoseff laughed off betting through the upstart Barstool Sports app while expressing admiration for founder Dave Portnoy‘s success.
Yoseff goes to the casino at Wind Creek Bethlehem near his Allentown home to play blackjack, which he also plays online. He’s 22-years-old and comes from a family where gambling is routine.
Coming back to Shippensburg to play at the new casino after it opens likely doesn’t make sense given the nearness of Wind Creek and the accessibility of online casino options.
But who knows?
Yoseff, after all, is a parlay-style gambler, a fan of long odds and big payouts.