A group of State College community members have spoken out against a Nittany Mall casino proposed by the former chair of Penn State’s Board of Trustees Ira Lubert.
SC Gaming OpCo, led by Lubert, won a license auction on Sept. 2, 2020, which gave it the opportunity to develop a “mini casino” in an area, including College Township.
Lubert, in cooperation with Bally’s Corporation, plans to develop the casino in the Nittany Mall at the location of the former Macy’s.
During a hearing of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in August 2021, Lubert presented his case to the board and to the public.
Lubert, a Penn State graduate in 1973, described himself as a “longtime member of the State College community.”
Lubert said he sees State College as “a local community in need of additional economic engines.”
The Nittany Mall has been the victim of online shopping, Lubert said.
Lubert said he believes a casino would draw more businesses to the mall and the surrounding area, which will create jobs and “drive the region’s economy forward.”
Lubert also developed the Valley Forge Casino Resort outside of Philadelphia.
Andrew Shaffer has been at the forefront of a local movement to stop the development of Lubert’s casino.
Shaffer said he opposes the casino partly because gambling addiction can affect a greater portion of college students and young adults than the general population.
People who are concerned they may have a gambling addiction may place themselves in a self-exclusion program, which will forbid them from entering a casino, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
Shaffer, a software developer at Penn State’s Applied Research Lab, has lived in State College ever since his freshman year at Penn State in 1999. He has a wife and two children.
Shaffer said the majority of the anti-casino movement's actions have been documented at the Say No to the Nittany Mall Casino website.
The website noted that over 1,000 messages opposing the casino were sent to the Gaming Control Board before its feedback deadline of June 12.
Shaffer said he and several others he recruited started both an online and a “hard-copy petition” where they knocked on neighbors’ doors to get their feedback. They found that the community members they talked to opposed the casino at a rate of 9-to-1.
He said they gathered over 3,300 distinct signatures for the online and hard-copy petitions combined.
The Gaming Control Board won’t hear new arguments until at least Dec. 14.
Shaffer pointed to the board’s denial of a license to build a casino near Gettysburg in 2017. Shaffer said the anti-casino movement garnered national opposition.
Eric Pearson, the prospective CEO and general manager of the new casino and former general manager of Valley Forge Casino Resort, said at the hearing, the Nittany Mall is only 50% occupied.
The casino would feature 750 slot machines and 30 table games, as well as a sports book and a sports-themed restaurant and bar with live entertainment, according to Pearson.
The casino would provide an estimated 500 construction jobs, as well as 350-400 permanent jobs along with “dynamic career growth opportunities,” Pearson said.
Pearson said he “grew up” in the casino business. His mother was a cocktail waitress, and his father was a hospitality manager.
He said he started bussing casino restaurant tables himself when he was 16 and has never left the industry.
“The casino entertainment business offers so many great opportunities that you can come in at an entry-level position, and you can work your way up,” Pearson said.
Pearson said these opportunities are becoming more limited, and there are many other casino executives who started at “line-level positions.”
“Because I took that path personally, it has very strongly influenced how I manage and… how I run casino properties,” he said.
Pearson said the casino will provide additional tax revenue for College Township.
Pearson also said all employees will complete annual “responsible gaming training.”
Shaffer argued that while Lubert said the casino will create jobs and bring revenue into the region, the casino will instead draw revenue that would be spent at other State College businesses.
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Shaffer said over half of that revenue will leave Centre County in the form of taxes and revenue for Bally’s Corporation. He described the proposed casino as a “drain” as opposed to a “boost.”
The casino would also bring more crime to the area, thus lowering property values, Shaffer said. Casinos have already brought an increase in crime in other Pennsylvania towns like York, he said.
Shaffer said Penn State has a conflict of interest regarding the casino.
Lubert previously served on Penn State’s Board of Trustees, ending his tenure as its chair. In 2017, Lubert donated $5 million to be used for endowment scholarships and renovations to the Lasch Football Building.
Lubert was also on Penn State’s Presidential Recruitment and Selection Committee, which selected Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi.
“[Lubert] definitely has a lot of say, and people hear him when he speaks,” Shaffer said.
Lubert appointed current Penn State Trustee Richard Sokolov as a vice president of SC Gaming.
Sokolov also chaired the “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence” fundraising campaign. Sokolov donated $8.3 million himself toward the campaign.
Shaffer said Lubert’s casino doesn’t belong in Pennsylvania because its gambling market is “already saturated.”
“All the people who want to gamble can gamble easily. They don’t even have to go to casinos. They can gamble online if they want to,” he said.
Shaffer referenced a Philadelphia Inquirer article from December 2021 that says four new casinos have opened since 2019, yet state-wide brick-and-mortar gambling revenue only increased by 3.6%.
Shaffer said this means each casino is only receiving 78% of its previous revenue, on average.
By and large, the new casinos didn’t attract new gamblers, Shaffer said — they only attracted gamblers who were already going to other casinos.
Shaffer said smaller towns like Shippensburg, which will have a Parx Casino opening in 2023, cannot support casinos the same way larger cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia can.
When casinos can’t turn a profit, they often turn to state governments for tax relief, Shaffer said.
Bally’s Corporation recently sued two towns in Rhode Island, claiming its property taxes should be lowered due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Politicians will say the casinos need to stay open so workers don’t lose their jobs, Shaffer said.
After the tax relief, “[the states] are no longer getting the revenue in taxes they had been promised [by the casino developers] to begin with, which is the whole reason why they allowed the casinos in the first place,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said the new casino won’t attract tourism from around the state because there are already casinos in all of the major population centers.
According to Shaffer, that means the revenue will almost entirely come from Centre County, with much of it not being recirculated into the State College economy.
Randolph Hudson of State College said College Township made a mistake when it chose not to opt out from being a potential location for a casino in 2017.
The township “did not do its due diligence on what the community wants,” Hudson said.
He said the jobs the new casino would create are “low-wage jobs” with high turnover, mainly housekeeping, deliveries and the like.
“Lots of people have started at low-wage jobs. It’s a part of everybody’s life,” Hudson said.
However, Hudson said casinos aren’t good for “making a career and supporting a family.”
Few “middle-income” manager-type jobs would be created, Hudson said.
Hudson said he doesn’t oppose gambling or casinos altogether.
“I've been to Las Vegas,” Hudson said. “I've walked through casinos, and there's a place for them in the world, you know everything in its place. But Happy Valley is not the place for a casino.”
State College often gets ranked highly on “top places to live” lists, both statewide and nationally, Hudson said.
He said this is because State College values education and “healthy, outdoor recreation and sports for families.”
“What part of those does a casino contribute to?” Hudson said.
He said parents won’t want to send their children to a university with a casino nearby.
Joan Bouchard said she has a son who’s a recovering gambling addict.
“For 20 years, his life was up for grabs,” she said.
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Bouchard, who has lived in Toftrees for four years, said her son’s addiction began when he started buying lottery tickets at 18.
“Luckily, he managed to get his life to a place where he's got some stability now, but it took a long time,” she said.
After attending many Gamblers Anonymous meetings, Bouchard learned to never get involved with her son’s financial affairs. She said some parents give their retirement savings to a child with a gambling problem, only for them to lose it all.
“I don't want this [gambling addiction] to happen to one Penn State student,” Bouchard said.
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers gave this statement on behalf of the university:
“Decisions on casino locations reside with local municipalities and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which oversees this legal activity for the commonwealth. As with other business endeavors, there are established mechanisms, practices and public input processes in place to weigh the benefits and the challenges of any such requests, and we believe these demonstrated processes are the appropriate course to take.”
Bouchard said Penn State is “missing the point,” regarding the casino. She said Penn State’s “first responsibility” is to its students and not to the economy of the surrounding area.
Penn State was founded to give young people “decent training so that they can become good, economically active, prosperous [people who are] able to exercise democracy,” Bouchard said. The casino will not contribute to any of those goals, she said.
There are currently no Gamblers Anonymous meetings near State College, although virtual self-help meetings can be scheduled.
“I don't think that the people here [in State College] are really aware of what an addiction and what a serious situation gambling can be,” Bouchard said.
Bouchard said it’s already hard enough for a student to schedule a counseling appointment as it is — it would be even harder with a rise in people with gambling addictions.
The casino’s impact report said it’ll generate $116 million in annual revenue — just under 50 million dollars below the Penn State football program’s annual revenue.
With much of the casino revenue leaving State College, Shaffer said it will “irrevocably change the character of Happy Valley.”
“It would be like taking the football program and abolishing it.”
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