To some, this is what casino gambling represents: addiction, crime, drugs, prostitution, bankruptcy, suicide. In short, a breakdown in family values and a stable society.
That’s the case for some critics who fear the impact of even a small casino, one with perhaps one-third the number of slot machines and table games as Pennsylvania’s major casinos. Such worries may abound even for a casino that wouldn’t fill the entire floor space of a Sears or Lowe’s store.
That kind of opposition was on full display from numerous residents lambasting an assault on their small-town values last Thursday during a Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board public hearing. It was held to precede a licensing vote expected later this year on a mini-casino proposed in Shippensburg, Cumberland County, by the owners of Parx Casino, the most successful casino in the state.
It was a rare — but not unheard of — public outcry against Pennsylvania’s aggressive adoption of legalized gambling as a tool for tax revenue and local economic development. Residents living around Caernarvon, Berks County, showed similarly forceful opposition two years ago on another mini-casino that is now nearing completion by Penn National Gaming.
It’s a contrast to the welcoming nature with which most local communities have greeted Pennsylvania casinos, but the difference shouldn’t be shocking. Most of the 14 casinos currently operating are in metropolitan areas of the state, with populations accustomed to and even embracing large social activities that might draw crowds, traffic, outsiders, alcohol consumption, and the like. The venues also each provide hundreds of jobs, sometimes in economically distressed areas.
But central Pennsylvania, much of it rural, is far different from cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh or abandoned industrial zones. Its residents are known to be more conservative, and with Pennsylvania’s adoption of its unusual mini-casino concept in 2017 gaming expansion legislation, gambling is being thrust into their small-town atmosphere in a way that some don’t like. Yet, right or wrong, there’s little chance of them stopping it.
Mini-casinos bring gambling where it wasn’t
When adopting the mini-casino legislation that also made Pennsylvania an early adopter of online casino gaming and sports betting, state officials were looking for more budget-balancing revenue from gambling while recognizing the state’s most populated areas were already well-saturated with casinos.
They hit upon the smaller mini-casinos as a way to put slots and blackjack play closer to residents who might be an hour or more from existing casinos and didn’t necessarily want to make that drive. The legislation allowed for bidding on 10 mini-casinos, but the economic realities of the gambling market were such that gaming operators were only willing to invest to develop five. Still, the bidding process was lucrative for the state, which netted some $121 million from auctions.
Pennsylvania’s legislature — which was and remains dominated by conservative Republicans — acknowledged the possibility that their constituents and local elected officials did not necessarily want to host any new gambling venues. Borough and township officials had a window in late 2017 to “opt out” of becoming a host municipality, and more than 1,000 — nearly half of the state communities — chose to do so. That included every municipality in Lancaster County, which is adjacent to the Berks County project.
Parx Casino officials encountered such sentiments in trying to locate their satellite location some 150 miles west of their Bucks County flagship. They knew they wanted to be in the Interstate 81 corridor between Harrisburg and the Maryland state line, but officials in Carlisle and South Middleton used the opt-out to rebuff Parx’s pursuit of sites there.
Local officials in Shippensburg Township, unlike their counterparts next door in Shippensburg Borough, were willing to welcome Parx for the potential economic benefits. But residential opponents don’t see positive dollar signs in weighing a mini-casino’s merits, or lack thereof. If anything, they talk of the gambling venue shifting income from the local community to the pockets of an owner or corporate shareholders elsewhere.
In one of more than 50 opposition letters posted about the Parx project on the gaming board’s website, Christopher Hershey of Shippensburg wrote: “The more revenue a casino brings in the more they are sucking out of a community and we are just thrown a few crumbs and left with the adverse effects to clean up in our town.”
Opponents heard before did not succeed
The gaming board has heard such objections before, most notably in considering the Penn National application to build from the ground up on Berks County land near the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a site officially within little Caernarvon Township but known more commonly by the village name there, Morgantown. It is just 12 miles from Penn National’s Wyomissing headquarters but in a relatively undeveloped area.
At the project’s local hearing held by the board in March 2019, PennLive.com reported that organized opponents presented a petition against it with more than 1,000 signatures. “Our community does not wish to grow on the losses of others,” said resident Michele King, one of dozens in attendance wearing badges that said “CasiNO.” Objectors gave other reasons ranging from fears of addiction to sex trafficking.
Township and county officials, as has customarily been the case elsewhere, endorsed the project. “This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our county,” said Berks Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt.
Months after taking testimony at such local hearings, the gaming board typically holds another public hearing in Harrisburg to hear once more from the gaming operator before taking a vote immediately afterward. The board approved the Penn National project three months afterward, similarly to every other casino venture in Pennsylvania with the exception of a Mount Airy Casino Resort mini-casino effort in Beaver County. That one was thwarted not by local opposition but by the company’s own struggles raising financing.
It’s unclear what amount of local criticism would ever result in the gaming board voting against mini-casino approval (a hearing is yet to come on an endeavor in Centre County), considering the state has made clear its intent to maximize potential state and local revenue from authorization of such projects.
Asked what impact local opposition has in a case such as the Parx Shippensburg project, board spokesman Doug Harbach replied by email: “Each of the board members will take all of the evidence compiled, which includes public input but also information gathered by the Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement in the background investigation, and Q&A at a later licensing hearing, and weigh it individually to come to a decision that will be made in a public vote.”
Critics like to depict worst-case scenarios
One interesting facet of listening to objections to the new mini-casinos is the Sodom and Gomorrah portrait painted of the amount of sin they could bring to a small town. The worst imagery of Atlantic City troubles was brought up last Thursday by those resisting a project that would occupy barely half the space inside a vacant Lowe’s home supply store.
Several speakers brought up their relatives’ or acquaintances’ experience with gambling addiction, ignoring the fact that those occur anyway without a mini-casino present and bingo and the lottery are commonly played without opposition in rural locations. Or they cite studies about the increase in gambling addiction that accompanies creation of new gambling venues, although such research typically relates to far larger gaming attractions than what the mini-casinos offer.
The only mini-casino active thus far is the Live! venue in Westmoreland County, which has the maximum of 750 slot machines and 30 table games. In the month of April, it generated $7.9 million in revenue and $292,000 in direct county and local tax revenue from that, which would equate to some $94.8 million and $3.5 million annually if averaged over 12 months.
The Parx officials said they plan a smaller operation than that, with 500 slots and 48 total table game “positions,” in addition to a sportsbook. There was no mention of providing live entertainment or other attractions to draw crowds. There would be one restaurant.
It all made one local official fairly roll her eyes at the pending crime and debauchery described by critics Thursday.
“You keep talking about all the problems this is going to bring to our community. It’s a mini-casino — it’s not Atlantic City,” stressed Linda Asper, one of Shippensburg’s three township supervisors supporting the project, in calling it a “gamble Shippensburg should take.”
PennLive.com interviewed Parx CEO John Dixon after the meeting about the opponents he heard. He said it’s not unusual in areas that are new to the prospect of commercial gambling.
“I think at the moment we’re committed to the project,” he told a reporter. “Obviously we’ve taken notes and we’ll read the testimony from everybody, and, if there’s things there that we can do to try and make people feel more comfortable with us, we’ll obviously do that. We want to be a good citizen.”
In this case, however, there appear to be no tweaks that could satisfy opponents. It is one of those NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) scenarios that gambling interests are used to encountering. They are also used to overcoming them, sometimes with results that make the opposition long forgotten by the time venues have been in operation for years. Presumably, that is just the way Pennsylvania officials hope and intend it to be.