Things have been quiet the past two months regarding Centre County’s pending mini-casino, and Tuesday seemed no different even though it represented an important notch on the project’s timeline.
It has been six months since Philadelphia real estate and business investor Ira Lubert secured the rights to develop Pennsylvania’s fifth mini-casino by virtue of a winning $10 million bid at a Sept. 2 Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board auction.
The board’s procedures provided Lubert six months — or until Tuesday — to submit to the agency a detailed application describing the project’s specific location, site development plan, financing, economic impact, transportation considerations, and more.
The only real news about the project to come out subsequent to the September auction has been a Jan. 4 announcement by Bally’s Corp., a national casino company without any prior Pennsylvania connection, that it had reached a partnership agreement with Lubert “to jointly design, develop, construct, and manage” the project.
A Bally’s representative told Penn Bets Tuesday the company did not expect to be publicizing any new information immediately about the casino development plan. Lubert, who is known to be publicity averse, has not discussed the mini-casino venture openly and could not be reached Tuesday.
And while the gaming board’s Bureau of Licensing expected to receive the application at some point Tuesday, board spokesman Doug Harbach said the voluminous document undergoes an internal review process that could last weeks before information from it is released to the public.
Nittany Mall seems the apt location, unofficially
Lubert’s winning bid gave him the right to build a gambling venue, known formally as a Category 4 casino, with up to 750 slot machines and 30 to 40 table games within a 15-mile radius of a centerpoint on the map he identified in Unionville Borough, Centre County.
Local speculation has suggested Nittany Mall in College Township, and specifically the former Macy’s store space now vacant in the mall, is the most logical casino location within that radius, though nothing has been announced officially.
Vacant mall department store space is being repurposed for gaming by two other mini-casinos in the state, with the idea that such sites meet zoning requirements, are in heavily trafficked highway corridors, offer ample parking, and already have some of the necessary infrastructure without requiring construction from the ground up.
In the case of Nittany Mall, which like many such retail centers has struggled mightily with the exodus of businesses in recent years, there is the additional benefit of proximity to the Penn State University campus and Beaver Stadium.
The location next to State College/Penn State for the mini-casino will help it benefit from the many visitors the university draws from out of town, both on football weekends and throughout the year. While the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas are well-saturated with casinos, including new ones to open in recent months, central Pennsylvania is not.
“I think maybe this is the last good fit for a casino in Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Scott Conklin, who serves a different part of Centre County but is eagerly awaiting details of the Lubert/Bally’s plan. He is both a former county commissioner and the ranking Democrat on the House Gaming Oversight Committee.
Conklin said he is unaware of any contact by those in charge of the project with local elected officials to discuss it in recent weeks or months, but he said he is unsurprised by that. It is typical for such developers to keep their plans private initially. The gaming board will arrange a public hearing locally within months for details to be presented to the community and for residents and officials to react.
Conklin said if any objections have been raised thus far, he has not heard of them.
“Someone just asked me yesterday morning when I believed the casino was coming, because they wanted to apply for a job,” he said. “People here understand the need for job growth, and that some of the businesses that have hung on as long as they have in the mall area have done so because they believe the casino will be coming and will help out.”
Project might be ready in mid-2022
When Bally’s announced its involvement in January, it indicated expectation that construction on the project would begin in the first half of the year and take about one year to complete, offering potential for a mid-2022 opening.
The announcement said overall investment in the project is expected to be $120 million, including fees to the state not just for the auction bid but for Bally’s to obtain licenses enabling it to operate an online casino and provide online and retail sports betting.
While Bally’s has no experience in Pennsylvania, let alone the State College area, Lubert knows the local area well as a Penn State graduate who became a key member of its board of trustees and has been a strong financial supporter of the university.
Lubert was also formerly involved in part-ownership of the Valley Forge Casino Resort and has been an investor in the Rivers Pittsburgh casino.
“We look forward to combining our own proven track record of greenfield development with Ira Lubert’s local knowledge and expertise to bring Bally’s first-in-class gaming experience and amenities to customers and sports fans across Pennsylvania,” Bally’s President and CEO George Papanier said in January. “We look forward to working with Ira, not only to build and develop the facility, but to contribute to the surrounding community.”