New VGT Gambling Skips The Glitz, Fills A Gap

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You don’t find Pennsylvania’s newest form of gambling in a glitzy, noisy hall packed with hundreds of partying, drinking celebrants. Nor does the newest aspect of the state’s widespread gaming expansion come by pushing a button online.

Instead, it’s rather incongruously found somewhere like the Emlenton Truck Plaza at Exit 42 of Interstate 80, in a small room after passing by an automated frozen concoction machine, a display of cowboy hats and shelves of flannel shirts for sale.

Since Aug. 22, five video gaming terminals inside the truck stop convenience store’s “777 Gaming Lounge” have been offering truckers, other long-distance travelers, and local residents along the Venango-Butler county line a chance to play slots-style games.

On the Emlenton facility’s website, it advertises: “We have 5 video gaming terminals located in our new Vegas style gaming room — 21 and over only.” Indeed, the wallpaper on three walls of the room display a panoramic photo of the Las Vegas Strip, including the Bellagio fountains.

It was the second VGT operation in the state to open, some 22 months after legislation was approved authorizing them. The first was on Aug. 16 at a York County Rutter’s location. Other Rutter’s operations in York and Mifflin counties have since begin VGT play. The Bald Eagle Travel Plaza in Clinton County has a fifth VGT site.

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Before long there will be dozens of them in mostly rural locations across Pennsylvania, as 73 truck stops meeting state eligibility criteria have sent in applications to host VGTs, and more submissions are expected.

‘It’ll take your money just as good as any other way’

For folks outside the state’s big population centers like Doug McNaughton of Parker, Butler County, it will save them a drive of an hour and a half to the nearest casino if they want to indulge in their favorite form of gambling. As with Pennsylvania slots, the machines are run by random number generators and must provide a minimum 85% payback overall to players.

“It’s fine here. It’ll take your money just as good as any other way,” chuckled McNaughton, 62, as he spent a few minutes on the Diamond Wheel Deluxe game in Emlenton after putting gas in his car.

The VGTs have no discernible difference in appearance and operation from casino slots to a player, other than the convenience of having multiple game options on each terminal to make up for having so few machines available. On one machine in Emlenton, for instance, a player could select from among the Wizard of Oz, Gold Fish, Black Knight, Great Zeus, and Bierhaus games.

One difference from casino slots, by law, is they have a maximum cash wager per spin of $5 and maximum payout of $1,000. Players insert cash and receive back printed tickets denoting any money owed when they’re done, which they insert into a separate machine to be paid off. The room is monitored by surveillance camera from the store’s checkout counter, to help ensure no play by anyone under 21 or other problems.

“We’ve been pleased” with the addition, said Eddie Yasechko Jr., co-owner of the Emlenton plaza. “You have to be competitive in this business. It’s very capital intensive, and any additional revenue will help us do improvements in the future. … It’s something we’re glad to have.”

The establishment receives 15% of the gross revenue collected from the VGTs it hosts. The state takes 52% in taxes. The other third goes to the company known as the terminal operator, responsible for contracting with the truck stop to serve as the entity that obtains, installs, and services the machines and interacts with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which oversees them.

150 eligible locations might end up opting for VGTs

By law, the locations are limited to those with diesel islands that dispense at least 50,000 gallons of fuel annually, provide at least 20 parking spaces for trucks, have convenience stores that serve as lottery agents, and occupy at least three acres of space.

The Emlenton plaza’s VGT terminal operator is Commonwealth Gaming, which is one of several firms that have spent many months soliciting truck stop establishments across the state that qualify. There could be 250 that meet the criteria, said Amy Christie, Commonwealth Gaming’s executive vice president of government affairs and business, who expects at least 150 to eventually opt for VGTs.

“There’s a lot of them,” Christie said, “that currently are still gathering all the information needed for the license,” which carries a $1,000 cost for the establishment plus additional fees. Licenses cost $25,000 for terminal operators and $50,000 for VGT manufacturers and suppliers.

This is not among the higher-revenue aspects of Pennsylvania’s gaming expansion. If Christie is right about the eventual number of locations it would mean 750 new gambling machines in the state — the same as in just one of the state’s five future mini-casinos.

As with other aspects of the expansion, like the mini-casinos, Pennsylvania is idiosyncratic in its approach. Other states with VGTs at truckstops, such as Illinois and Louisiana, also have them at numerous other locations such as bars and clubs.

Opposition from casinos, concerned about the impact of widespread competition, helped prevent approval of wider VGT options in Pennsylvania in either the 2017 law or other legislative efforts. Because of that, Christie said, revenue per VGT at the truck stops — the only legal form of retail gambling for miles around, other than a lottery ticket — could be higher than in other states.

She suggested each machine in Pennsylvania might gross $200,000 annually. Commonwealth Gaming will be lobbying for lawmakers to eventually allow truck stops to double the number of machines to 10, Christie said, as that was the number originally contained in the 2017 legislation before amendments.

Rutter’s sees plenty of potential across the state

Rutter’s, the convenience store chain based in York County, has already applied for 10 licenses and might eventually pursue 20 of them for its locations that qualify among 73 Rutter’s stores in the state.

“I believe they are currently exceeding expectations,” spokeswoman Alison Hummel said of the three Rutter’s VGT sites already open. “We have a lot of people curious and interested in them and having a good time.”

She and Yasechko, the owner of the Emlenton plaza, said players have seemed to be a mix of both locals and passers-through like truckdrivers. It provides an additional recreational opportunity in areas that don’t typically have much in the way of commercial entertainment ventures.

At mid-day on a recent weekday in Emlenton, where each wall bore “Problem Gambling? Call 1-800-GAMBLER” lettering above the machines, the VGTs’ comfortable, high-backed swivel chairs with arm rests were never all occupied at once. There was an occasional player like retired McNaughton, or one or two more.

McNaughton liked it fine that way, with more quiet privacy, far from the casinos’ cacophony of noise from the machines’ combined clattering and the piped-in music. He lost a few dollars in his short session but was content with the opportunity.

“I don’t need all the glitz,” he said — he’s just happy to have the occasional diversion 10 minutes from home instead of driving to Pittsburgh, Erie, or Ohio.

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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