College Township Near Penn State Explains Summer 2019 Decision to Allow Casino

The College Township Council, facing considerable backlash from community members, is explaining its decision to potentially allow a commercial casino in the Centre County borough.

College Township Nittany Mall Penn State
College Township Nittany Mall Penn State
Local news covers the Macy’s closing at the Nittany Mall in January 2020. Bally’s wants to put a casino inside the former retail anchor store, but College Township is hearing much opposition from community members. (Image: WTAJ)

Pennsylvania lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf (D) in 2017 greatly expanded gaming in the commonwealth in what was a bipartisan effort to generate new tax revenue. The Republican-controlled General Assembly favored more gambling over tax hikes in order to bridge the state’s budget gap. The bill legalized iGaming, video gaming terminals (VGTs) at certain truck stops, sports betting, fantasy sports, airport gaming lounges, and as many as 10 brick-and-mortar mini-casinos.

However, the gaming package provided local townships and municipalities with opt-out rights to excuse themselves from consideration of being a Category 4 mini-casino host locale. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) fielded opt-outs through August 2019. More than 1,000 local councils and boards did, but College Township was not one of them.

Some three years later, College Township is fielding much hostility from the community as a consortium led by Bally’s Corporation hopes to build a mini-casino at the Nittany Mall in what was formerly a Macy’s department store.

Casino Opportunity Coincided with Mall Struggles

Bally’s went a roundabout way in securing its satellite casino privilege. Each Category 4 satellite casino is permitted to initially house up to 750 slot machines and 30 table games.

After the PGCB in November 2019 denied Mount Airy Casino Resort a Category 4 license because of inadequate funding for its originally planned satellite casino in Beaver County, the state gaming agency opened up the Category 4 bidding to individuals who held at least a 1% ownership position in one of the larger casinos.

Enter Ira Lubert, a Penn State alumni and trustee of the university who controls a 3% stake in Rivers Casino Pittsburgh. Lubert won the September 2020 Category 4 auction round with a $10 million bid and subsequently partnered with Bally’s to target College Township for a casino.

Public feedback from the local community in College Township, which borders State College where Penn State University is primarily located, has been heavily against the Bally’s plan.

During the College Township’s meeting last week, the council took time to try and explain its reasoning. Council President Rich Francke explained that the township thought that the Nittany Mall, which had lost all three of its anchor tenants since 2015, could be revitalized with a casino.

Both of Pennsylvania’s two Cat. 4 casinos that have since opened are located inside malls. Hollywood Casino York took the place of a Sears at the York Galleria, while Live! Casino Pittsburgh occupies what was a Bon-Ton at the Westmoreland Mall.

Community Review Possible

The College Township Council doesn’t have much legal recourse to now withdraw its candidacy as a mini-casino host. Bally’s and Namdar Realty Group, the latter which owns the Nittany Mall, seem intent on moving forward.

However, potential impediments remain.

Along with an ongoing legal challenge brought by Live! operator The Cordish Companies regarding whether Lubert violated competitive bidding rules by scheming with Bally’s to win the Cat. 4 license, College Township is considering conducting an independent impact study. The review would focus on what sort of negative repercussions that the Bally’s casino might have on the community and nearby university population.

The council will next meet on September 15. Along with the impact study, councilors say they will consider writing a letter of recommendation to the PGCB that the state agency denies Bally’s license application.

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