Pennsylvania cities weigh whether to allow new mini-casinos
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s days-old law expanding its casino industry has set off debates in cities and towns around the state about whether to try to lure one of the 10 new mini-casinos created by the law, or ban them.
It’s part of an aggressive new expansion of gambling that will bring casino games to Pennsylvanians’ cellphones and tablets and the state’s airports, truck stops and farther-flung parts where gambling at a real casino has, for the past decade, meant driving an hour or two.
Now, cities like York, Lancaster, Reading, Gettysburg, Johnstown, Altoona, Williamsport and State College could be targets for the state’s existing casino operators to seek out a new customer base in Pennsylvania, already the nation’s No. 2 state for commercial casino gambling revenue behind Nevada.
Boosters say a casino will bring tourism, millions of dollars of investment in construction, permanent casino jobs and spin-off economic development — not to mention a cut of casino profits for the host city.
Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray said he probably will recommend to City Council that it vote to ban a casino. He doesn’t like gambling as a revenue source.
“I’m a strong believer that if you want revenue, you should raise taxes,” Gray said. “You shouldn’t really impose a regressive fee on the hopes of poor people.”
In Williamsport, Mayor Gabriel Campana has not yet read up on the law. But, he said, he would rather find revenue through choices that residents make than through raising taxes.
“I’d like to have the opportunity to sit down with citizens to discuss how they feel about it, because every time you bring gambling into a community, there’s some pros and there’s some cons,” Campana said.
Towns and cities in Lawrence County may not be on the casino owners’ A-lists, but county officials are pulling together their own marketing to attract attention. A casino in Lawrence County also could attract Ohioans just across Pennsylvania’s western border, said county commissioner Dan Vogler.
Some areas of Pennsylvania are off-limits.
One provision of the law scratches out much of northeastern Pennsylvania around Mount Airy Casino Resort, founded by billionaire Louis DeNaples, as well as Armstrong County, perhaps inadvertently. Fayette and Montgomery counties are also banned because both are home to a resort casino — Valley Forge Casino and Lady Luck Casino Nemacolin — that are similar in size to the new mini-casinos.
Then there’s a 25-mile prohibition around the existing casinos. That means Pennsylvania’s most heavily populated areas are off limits, unless a casino operator wants to put its own mini-casino nearby, such as an Erie lakefront location for the nearby Presque Isle Downs Casino.
First up is the deadline for municipalities to decide whether a casino is for them. Under the law, a municipality can approve a resolution before Jan. 1 prohibiting one of the new casinos. It can undo the decision later, but then that’s it — it cannot reconsider.
By Jan. 16, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board must hold the first blind auction for one of the licenses. The minimum bid is $7.5 million, and only Pennsylvania’s licensed casino owners can submit the sealed bids. The auction winner gets their choice of site, with a prohibition against any other new casino within a 15-mile radius. A table games permit costs an extra $2.5 million.
Pennsylvania casino owners are wary about discussing their plans. They, like the public, first saw the gambling expansion bill just hours before lawmakers approved it last week and sent it to Gov. Tom Wolf, who signed it Monday.
Most vocal is Pennsylvania-based Penn National, owner of Hollywood Casino in suburban Harrisburg. The company said it is considering suing because the mini-casino licenses represent a unique threat to its business, whose customers do not come from a concentrated area but are spread out across central Pennsylvania. As a result, the company may use a mini-casino to protect its customer base.
“The playing field has yet to be truly determined at this point,” said Eric Schippers, a Penn National spokesman. “But I will tell you we are in the uniquely awkward position of figuring out how to protect our market share.”