Friday, May 14, 2021

What a casino may mean for College Township

STATE COLLEGE — The former Macy’s department store site at the Nittany Mall is the planned location for a proposed mini-casino in Centre County.

College Township officials received a local impact report as required by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board that identified the location for the Category 4 casino, township Manager Adam Brumbaugh said in a statement on March 3.

Investor and former Penn State trustee Ira Lubert had a winning bid at a September 2020 Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board auction for a new license for a Category 4 casino that would be built somewhere within a 15-mile radius of Unionville Borough.

In January, Bally’s Corp. announced it had signed an agreement with Lubert to develop a planned $120 million mini-casino, but at the time indicated only that it would be located “near the Nittany Mall.”

Macy’s closed its Nittany Mall store in 2020 and the property was subsequently acquired by mall ownership.

The new casino is expected to have 750 slot machines and 30 table games. If approved for separate licenses and certificates, it will provide retail sports betting, online sports betting and online gaming. It also will have restaurant and entertainment facilities.

College Township zoning allows for gaming establishments in the area of the Nittany Mall. The township was one of a handful of Centre County municipalities that chose not to opt out from consideration as a potential site when the state began rolling out mini-casinos in 2017, citing the potential for development in the mall area.

“While College Township did not seek out this use, this potential has existed because of our existing zoning. Thus, the casino is about creating an opportunity for redevelopment of the mall, driving traffic to our commercial areas, creating jobs and expanding retail, dining and lodging choices,” Brumbaugh told The Gazette via email.

“This project, if it comes to fruition, isn’t as important to the township as it is to the property in question and the area around the Nittany Mall. The Township doesn’t need casino revenues to sustain itself. This is a property-specific opportunity for a specifically challenged property.”

The news of the casino comes as Rural King plans to open its first Centre County store in the former Sears location later this month and follows a recent announcement that discount clothing chain Gabe’s plans to come to the former Bon-Ton location, meaning all-four of the mall’s anchor stores may soon be filled.

Brumbaugh said that if the casino license is approved, he believes it will draw additional traffic to the retail and commercial establishment in and around the mall.

“As a result, I believe this will be positive for those establishments in this area and may provide additional opportunities for expanded retail, dining and lodging opportunities,” Brumbaugh said.

He added, “I view the casino’s impact as a positive from a redevelopment and economic development standpoint for the community. Viewed as an entertainment venue that is likely to drive added traffic to the township’s commercial areas, I believe the casino will not have significant impact on the township’s neighborhoods and the day-to-day lives of township residents.”

Brumbaugh said that prior to March 2, the township had received no official word about the proposed casino location, but had been contacted by a consulting firm from Philadelphia tasked with completing the local impact report.

The consultant interviewed township staff and several regional officials, including State College Police Chief John Gardner and Centre Region Fire Director Steve Bair.

“College Township has been proactively monitoring the developments related to the proposed Category 4 casino and intends to perform its due diligence on any regulatory reviews that may be required,” Brumbaugh said.

The local impact report estimates an additional 6.2 police calls, 2.2 fire calls and two EMS calls per month as a result of a College Township casino.

Gardner, according to the report, “did not anticipate that the casino will have a material impact on the department’s current police force staff and/or allocated police service hours to College Township.”

Bair said he did not anticipate “any major increase” in fire calls or expenses as a result of the casino, the report said.

Centre LifeLink EMS Chief Kent Knable said he “did not anticipate that the proposed casino would create further capacity challenges.”

Anticipated impact on the local road network “is minimal,” township Engineer Don Franson said, according to the report. He noted that while increased traffic is expected, the surrounding streets are designed to handle “full-scale mall activity.” The increased traffic should not warrant a new traffic signal.

“Of course, there is always concern with the potential of increased crime or increased traffic with the opening of an entertainment venue. But the infrastructure that is presently in place to support the 625,000-plus square feet within the Nittany Mall is sufficient to handle both visitors and traffic that may patronize the casino. As for crime, the information we have at this point indicates that relatively few additional calls for police service will be generated. Now that a location has been identified, the township can research what other mini-casino Pennsylvania municipalities have experienced and plan accordingly,” Brumbaugh told The Gazette.

Township Council Chair Eric Bernier said he agreed with Brumbaugh and added, “as noted in the impact report, the infrastructure surrounding the mall area supported the mall at full capacity. It also already supports peak traffic during large events entering the area through that corridor.”

The report by ESI Consultant Solutions concludes that the casino would have “a net-positive impact on College Township tourism, helping to revitalize the Nittany Mall and attract other retail and hospitality operators to the area.”

Tax revenues from the casino also will be “a significant net positive” to the township, the report stated.

“At this point, we do not have a projection of potential revenue that might be generated by the casino. We do know that Pennsylvania’s Category 4 license legislation provides for 2 percent of gross revenue from slot machines and 1 percent for table games to return to the host municipality and that those funds are capped at a percentage of the township’s annual budget. Likewise, there is also an identical return of gross revenue to the host municipality’s county with which the county is to use for funding other grants, projects, and programs through a dedicated fund established at the Commonwealth Financing Agency,” said Brumbaugh.

Lubert is licensed by the PGCB through his ownership interest in Holdings Acquisitions Co. LP, operator of Rivers Casino Pittsburgh. He had until March 2 to submit his formal application to PGCB for the mini-casino.

As part of the approval process, PGCB will publish the application and host a public input hearing at a date to be announced.