Centre County government and business officials despondent over the prospect of a fall without Penn State football got a nice consolation prize this week: a mini-casino that could attract thousands of visitors on a daily basis in two or so years.
There had been past murmurs in the State College area that Philadelphia business investor Ira Lubert was interested in developing one of those scaled-down casinos at Nittany Mall, which is just two miles away from Beaver Stadium in College Township.
That interest may come to fruition as a result of Lubert’s high bid of $10 million for the right to develop Pennsylvania’s fifth mini-casino. His submission was announced at the start of Wednesday’s Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board meeting as the higher of two sealed bids in pursuit of the available license.
Lubert, a past owner of Valley Forge Casino Resort, made no announcement of his intentions following his successful bid, and he can develop the gaming hall anywhere within 15 miles of a centerpoint he identified in Unionville, Centre County. The specific site must be identified within six months as part of a detailed application.
Area already gets more than its share of visitors
There was a possibility a winning mini-casino bidder would want to replace a scrapped Mount Airy Casino Resort project planned for Beaver County by developing something more in western Pennsylvania, midway between existing casinos in Pittsburgh and Erie, but the State College area makes more sense to state Rep. Scott Conklin.
Conklin, a former Centre County commissioner who is the ranking Democrat on the House Gaming Oversight Committee, said there has been discussion for several years of the area around State College as ripe for a casino project. It makes more sense now than ever, he said, due to the area’s growing visitation in connection with Penn State.
“If you’re a casino owner and you’re looking at the most under-utilized place in the state where you would be able to have a natural base, State College and Penn State and central Pennsylvania is it, due to tourism,” Conklin said. “Some of us were surprised that Centre County was not a county that was marked initially when people were opening up casinos in the state.”
The State College metropolitan area is only the 11th largest in the state, with just more than 160,000 residents. They have a nearly two-hour drive currently to the nearest casino, the Hollywood Casino north of Harrisburg.
The mini-casinos offering 750 slot machines and 30 to 40 table games, plus other amenities, are intended to serve gamblers in less populated areas who don’t want to make a long drive to existing casinos. A gambling hall in Centre County will draw upon far more potential visitors than just nearby residents, Conklin suggested.
That’s beside the thousands of parents dropping off and picking up students and the 100,000-plus football fans who would normally attend Nittany Lions’ games on fall Saturdays, aside from this season’s COVID-19-related postponement.
“The State College area and Penn State campus has become a 365-day-a-year draw,” Conklin said, citing athletic tournaments, conferences, and other gatherings. “You’re looking at almost every day of the year there’s something going on that is bringing a huge amount of tourism into the area. If I was somebody looking at a casino, that is what I’m looking at.”
Township officials waiting for contact
The name Ira Lubert, a wealthy Penn State graduate who was formerly chairman of its board of trustees, is well known to College Township officials, but they say they’ve never had a conversation with him about a casino.
Now they’re waiting to see if he approaches them about such a project within their boundaries at Nittany Mall. The township adjacent to State College also includes part of Penn State’s campus. The mall site is deemed likely because Lubert was part of the Nittany Gaming group that was publicly identified as having a lease option for vacated department store space at the mall in 2018.
College Township was not among the 1,000-plus municipalities that made use of their right to 2017 to “opt out” of hosting a mini-casino, and it is precisely because officials knew such an opportunity existed for Nittany Mall, said Anthony Fragola, chairman of the township council.
“There haven’t been any conversations or anything — we’re just hearing the news as well — but we’re cautiously optimistic,” Fragola said after learning of Lubert’s successful bid.
“Gaming is a use by right in our commercial zoning area,” he said. “We understand the economic development potential that’s there. … We have a mall that’s been struggling for years, and the municipality has been doing a variety of things to try to assist that mall.”
Retail operations at malls around the country have been on the decline for some time, a downturn only exacerbated by COVID-19’s impact on consumers’ buying habits.
Nittany Mall lost its Macy’s this year, and that came after losing Bon-Ton, Sears, and JCPenney, among other tenants, before that.
Vacated department store space is already being converted to mini-casinos under construction at both Westmoreland Mall, by Cordish Gaming Group, and York Galleria, by Penn National Gaming.
Like those longtime shopping centers, Nittany Mall offers the advantage of a well-developed infrastructure, ample parking, and a location on a busy highway. The mall is also close to interstates 99 and 80.
“There’s optimism here,” Fragola said, that the mall will be Lubert’s chosen site and the effect will be positive for other businesses and the township, which stands potentially to receive 2% of mini-casino slots revenue and 1% of table games revenue. If Lubert proceeds with a mall project, a public hearing will be required in the township where extensive details are presented and residents can respond.
Township manager Adam Brumbaugh said, “At this point in time our approach is we’re going to wait and let somebody reach out to us and provide us with the information we need to know. At this point in time, we don’t have enough details — we will wait and see and promptly respond to any inquiries.”
Lubert not one to seek publicity
The lack of public comment offered immediately by Lubert about his interest in Nittany Mall, Centre County, or the project itself is not necessarily a surprise.
The chairman and co-founder of Independence Capital Partners and Lubert Adler Partners is known as a widespread philanthropist in the Philadelphia area, but not one who craves the limelight.
A wrestler on scholarship when attending Penn State, Lubert became known in Pennsylvania’s gaming industry by heading the investment group that owned Valley Forge Casino Resort before selling it for $280 million in 2018 to Boyd Gaming Corp.
In a mini-casino auction held a year ago, when there were no bidders, Lubert would not have had the right to bid. The prior process was open only to existing Pennsylvania casino operators.
Legislation enacted in May that mandated the new auction added specific language allowing bids by individuals already licensed by the board due to ownership interest in an existing slot machine license. Lubert holds a small ownership stake in the Rivers Casino Pittsburgh.
Without that new language, it’s possible no mini-casino would be coming to Centre County, although it’s not known if the location was also sought by the second, failed bidder, whose identity was not disclosed by the gaming board.
The legislative leaders who crafted the measure creating the new auction and opening it to someone like Lubert presumably included Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, who represents Centre County.
In response to an Penn Bets email, Corman’s spokeswoman did not address a question about Corman’s role in the legislation and knowledge of Lubert.
She sent this statement from the Republican Senate leader about the project: “Having a Category 4 casino in the region will serve as yet another reason for people from all over to travel to Centre County and experience all our area has to offer. It is another source of entertainment locally that will enhance our region as a destination for visitors.”
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