Township supervisors in Shippensburg, Cumberland County, are on record supporting the pending arrival of a mini-casino, but residents of the area speaking at a hearing Thursday decried the Parx Casino venture as an assault on a peaceful, family-oriented, churchgoing community.
“Success in the gambling industry only comes at the expense of someone else. Please don’t let it be at the expense of the children and families of Shippensburg Township,” Wayne Gruver of nearby Southampton Township told members of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, in comments echoed by 10 other speakers.
The board held the public hearing attended by perhaps 100 people at Shippensburg University’s Luhrs Performing Arts Center as a necessary step before considering later this year whether to grant a license for what is known formally as a Category 4 casino to Parx and its owner, Greenwood Gaming and Entertainment. A web livestream of the hearing was also made available by the board for anyone not attending.
It was the second such hearing for Parx in Shippensburg, as one was previously held in March 2019 for a different township location at an Interstate 81 interchange. Plans for that site were scrapped due to excavation problems, and a new proposal was unveiled earlier this year to occupy a former Lowe’s home supply store about a mile from the original location.
To start Thursday’s hearing, Parx officials vowed to be charitable community partners offering valued jobs and other economic benefits while putting 500 slot machines plus table games, a sportsbook, and a Chickie’s & Pete’s restaurant in the shopping plaza location adjacent to a Walmart Supercenter.
“We believe we’re an economic generator, but a positive generator for good in the community,” said Ron Davis, Parx director of diversity and community development, after outlining the company’s charitable efforts some 150 miles away at its Bucks County racetrack-casino. “Your interest, your passion, is what we want to center ourselves around.”
The passions stirred by the gambling proposal were of a different nature at the hearing, however, as applause resounded only for those denouncing the project.
Town described as living in a Hallmark movie
Parx bid $8.1 million at a February 2018 gaming board auction for the right to pursue one of the new mini-casino licenses available under Pennsylvania’s October 2017 gambling expansion law. Also known as satellite casinos, they offer casino operators the chance to develop smaller venues around the state in areas distant from the existing casinos, which are primarily in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas.
Only one of five of those now planned has opened thus far, the Live! casino in Westmoreland County. Two by Penn National Gaming are to open later this year, in York and Berks counties. Another near Penn State University in Centre County is at an earlier stage awaiting its own local public hearing and construction start.
While the 14 casinos now open in Pennsylvania have generally avoided strong anti-gambling sentiments and been accepted in local communities for the jobs, tax revenue, and other economic development potential they offer, a different reception to the Parx project was evident before the hearing in written public comments that appear on the gaming board’s website.
More than 50 letters show up critical of the mini-casino, many of them sharing a view that it would be out of character for a rural setting where the state-owned university is currently the primary economic engine. Only three letters supporting the venture appear.
Some of Thursday’s speakers, like some of the letters, carried a religious or moral overtone in ignoring specific details of the Parx plan, while condemning the very idea of anyone profiting from gambling in their midst.
Jim Rogers, pastor of Shippensburg First Church of God, said he and his wife moved to the area six years ago and loved the sense of “living in a Hallmark movie town,” with its community parades and small-town character.
“A casino coming in is going to ruin that. All of the studies show a casino is a cancer on the community,” Rogers said. “We don’t want you here. The churches in town don’t want you here. … I have been praying against you, and I will continue to pray against you.”
He and some of the other speakers spoke repeatedly about gambling addiction and the strain on human service programs that would arise from it, and they presented multiple petitions to the board in opposition to the project.
But it’s just a mini-casino, not Atlantic City
Shippensburg Township is a community of some 5,500 residents that Parx estimates could receive $900,000 in direct tax benefits annually as a share of casino revenue, in addition to an equal amount going to Cumberland County. Parx officials said the venue would provide 75 full-time and 100 part-time jobs once open, and the company’s annual full-time salary averages $48,700.
Township officials anticipated such potential economic benefits in choosing not to “opt out” of becoming a mini-casino host community, which was an option available in the 2017 law and was taken by more than 1,000 municipalities statewide.
After listening to the opposition to the project offered by prior speakers at the hearing, including criticism of the township supervisors, some exasperation and defense was offered by one of those supervisors, Linda Asper.
“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,” Asper stressed. She said Parx has a right to undertake the development as a conforming use at the Lowe’s site under the township’s guidelines, “and they are using a building that is abandoned, sitting there and waiting to be vandalized.”
Asper said her own father-in-law had a gambling problem and lost his savings from it, but that was an occurrence already available to anyone without the mini-casino, including from the bingo games operated by many community organizations.
“I’m just going to say that life is a gamble itself, and to get anywhere in life you have to take gambles. I think this is a gamble Shippensburg should take,” Asper said.
While most of those attending were not on her side, one Shippensburg Borough resident, Joshua Rosetta, said opponents were relying on stereotypical emotions surrounding gambling to base their arguments, rather than factual data.
“The fact is we need an economic boost in this town,” said Rosetta. That point was similarly made by the president of the Shippensburg Area Development Corp. after consulting his peers elsewhere near other small casinos, such as in Fayette County.
The gaming board has no deadline by which to act on the Parx proposal, but it is likely to do so within months after another public presentation that the company would need to make to the board at a Harrisburg hearing.