Since Pennsylvania decided to allow mini-casinos in 2017, there have been many reasons for delays and cancellations. Reasons ranged from inadequate funding to a global pandemic to the possibility of sinkholes under a proposed site.
One thing that has not caused any delay, although it was not from lack of effort: Local opposition.
In every case, residents near the planned mini-casinos have written to their township councils or Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board and lined up at meetings to express their disapproval.
History of mini-casino openings in PA
- Nov. 2020: Live! Casino Pittsburgh
- August. 2021: Hollywood Casino York
- Dec. 2021: Hollywood Casino Morgantown
- Fall of 2022: Parx Casino Shippensburg
*Mini-casinos in PA can operate with 750 slots and 30 table games.
The latest news about State College casino
This all bodes well for a $123 million plan for a 94,000-square-foot mini-casino at the Nittany Mall in State College in a vacant Macy’s about four miles from the campus of Pennsylvania State University. The project is the brainchild of financier Ira Lubert’s SC Gaming in partnership with Bally’s Corp, which is on board to run the sports betting and iGaming offerings.
The August 2021 PGCB hearing to receive public input and the September 2021 meeting of the College Township Board to approve the land use both passed with modest opposition. But since then, the PCGB has received hundreds of emails denouncing the plan. A Facebook group called Say No Casino – Nittany Mall has more than 130 members. An online petition opposing the project has more than 800 signatories, although many are anonymous and there’s no way to confirm whether signers live in the area.
The Bally’s casino near Penn State has yet to receive final approval from the PCGB, which would occur after another public hearing in Harrisburg. It’s unclear why the PCGB has yet to schedule that session.
PGCB Director of Communications Doug Harbach commented:
“The license is still pending awaiting completion of background investigative work.”
There is some speculation that the delay may be related to a pending lawsuit filed by Cordish Companies in September 2021 asserting the PCGB improperly accepted the $10 million bid from Bally’s partner Ira Lubert. Cordish says Lubert was ineligible to bid because the company he formed to develop the casino, SC Gaming Op Co., LLC., included partners who themselves may not eligible to bid. The PCGB could be slow-walking this process because there’s a reasonable prospect that the court may throw the legitimacy of the license into question.
That may be a factor, but Harbach declined to say. But few with knowledge of the process believe the delay is being caused by the other issue getting a lot of media attention in the past month – the mounting local opposition.
Mini-casino was “a done deal before the meeting started”
Greg Neavin formed the Coalition for a Better Westmoreland in 2018 to try to thwart Cordish’s Live! Casino Pittsburgh.
“What happens is, people buy into the idea of revenue and jobs, and ‘Hey, it’s gaming, and it’s a pleasant time.’ And they say, ‘We’re acting responsibly because we have this 800 number for you if you have a problem.’ They do a really, really great job of positioning it as harmless fun. The majority of folks rollover and the Gaming Commission does their thing. The politicians get wined and dined. They get to be big shots. Anybody who gets up to voice opposition, as I did, is just a killjoy.”
Similarly, in 2019, a wide-ranging collection of local residents appeared at a lengthy PGCB meeting to oppose the construction of Penn National’s $111 million Morgantown casino just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. They also collected a petition of more than 1,000 signatures opposing the project.
It didn’t matter.
“It was a done deal before the meeting even started,” says the Rev. Colleen Painter of Elverson United Methodist Church, which is four miles from Hollywood Morgantown. “The community made the best case that we could. The room was filled. We had people. Obviously, the control board is not sensitive to the issues of the local community. And for the local township, all they could see was the money.”
Indeed, Allen Styer, the chair of the Caernarvon Township where the casino now stands, urged the PGCB at the same meeting to move ahead because the project would add jobs and tax revenue.
Only one mini-casino rejected
Painter says many of the residents in the rural region were unaware of the process when the township board unanimously approved the project because, like her church, they are just outside the township’s boundaries.
“The township signed, sealed and delivered this before the community even found out what was going on,” Painter said. “It wasn’t even on people’s radar.”
Harbach says that “public input is part of the evidentiary record that each member of the Board can use along with other information gathered by our investigation unit in reaching a decision.”
And yet, the only mini-casino to be rejected by the regulators so far was one proposed by Mount Airy in 2019 in Beaver County. It was voted down because the PGCB was unconvinced it would be economically viable.
State College casino awaits final approval
In the Nittany Mall case, the PCGB approved the SC Gaming application in August at a cordial hearing where Lubert, State Sen. Jake Corman, College Township Council chair Eric Bernier and mall general manager Polly Welch all spoke to urge approval.
Just two residents spoke against the proposal, sounding an alarm about the prospect that the casino would prey on the poor and vulnerable.
Retired Methodist pastor Carl Hill said the casino would be:
“A menace to society. Deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life, destructive of good government and good stewardship.”
In the many months since that meeting, as the PGCB waits to hold the required second hearing that would provide final approval to begin construction, dozens of local opponents have written to the PGCB.
Their concerns are the same as Neavin and Painter presented in their unsuccessful efforts to avert the casinos now operating near them. Plus, the added fears about having legal gambling so close to Penn State.
“I oppose the SC Gaming slots facility in this family-oriented university town due to its potential for increased crime, an increase in drunk driving, temptation for college students to gamble and make ‘fast money,’ [and] an increase in some less desirable visitors to our town,” wrote Susan Strauss of State College, a professor of applied linguistics at Penn State.
Opponents of casino are urging new Penn State prez to take action
Despite this history, those battling the Nittany casino believe their movement is only picking up steam the longer the process drags on. Daniel Materna, one of the most vocal opponents of the Nittany Casino plan, says:
“Since just days prior to the August 16, 2021 public input hearing conducted in State College, our community’s continual opposition to a casino near Penn State began to grow each week and has now established momentum and continual progress toward convincing the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to deny the casino license application for the Nittany Mall Casino.”
Some opponents are urging outgoing Penn State President Eric Barron or his successor, Neeli Bendapudi, to take a stand against the project. Yet while Bendapudi, who takes over in May, has said she plans to be more active in community affairs, there’s little evidence in her background that she’s an anti-gambling activist or has ever made any public statements about the matter.
Still, even if they did come out against it, Neavin says his experience in Westmoreland with Live! Casino Pittsburgh has led him to conclude that community input is not seriously entered into the ultimate decision.
“The cards are stacked against us. The reality is that the state already participates in predatory gambling with the lottery. So, when you have the state in favor of it and the politicians are in favor of it, all you have to do is say brings jobs brings revenue, right? You’ve got a dying shopping mall, and it’s a Hail Mary for the mall. Nobody can see the long-term damage.”
Lead image rendering c/o SC Gaming