Day At The Track

County bypassed for first casino license

08:46 AM 12 Jan 2018 NZDT
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The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue
The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue awarded the first of 10 mini-casino licenses Wednesday morning. It didn't go to Lawrence County, but local officials remain hopeful of landing one of the remaining nine, and the former Sears store in Union Township i
Brent Addleman Photo

The award of the first of 10 mini-casino licenses has left Commissioner Dan Vogler hopeful for Lawrence County's chances at one of the remaining nine licenses.

The first license was awarded on Wednesday to Mountainview Thoroughbred Association LLC, the Dauphin County-based parent company of Hollywood Casino. The winning offer for $50,100,000 outbid three other competitors. The new mini-casino will be located in Yoe Borough in southern York County. The community is near the Maryland border with access to Interstate 83 into Maryland.

"That is very similar to our situation," said Vogler who made the drive to Harrisburg to witness the bid award. "Lawrence County is located on a state border with Ohio. We have access to many major highways from Interstate 376, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstates 80 and 79. We also have empty buildings that would be ideal locations to house a casino."

All the county needs, he agreed, is an existing casino operator with deep pockets who can outbid others vying for the remaining nine Category 4 licenses.

Vogler said he could not say if any potential casino operators have visited Lawrence County but agreed that several locations might be attractive for such a project.

Potential sites could include the Cascade Galleria in downtown New Castle and the former Sears store in Union Township, which has good highway access, is near the Ohio border, has access to massive amounts of free parking and is located near hotels and restaurants.

The winning bid and proposed location for the state's first mini casino were announced prior to Wednesday's Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board meeting by executive director Kevin O'Toole who said the amount of the bid must be provided to state officials by 4 p.m. Friday or the license will go to the second place bidder.

In all, four bids were received for the first casino license auction. O'Toole said the names of the unsuccessful bidders and their offers would be locked away "secured and confidential and will not influence upcoming auctions."

The next auction is scheduled for Jan. 24.

Vogler noted that under terms of the new licenses, the casino must be located within a 15-mile radius of Yoe, and may be no closer than 25 miles to an existing casino. Vogler also noted that with Gettysburg in Adams County and all of Lancaster County opting out of potential casino sites, "This locks up south central Pennsylvania along the Maryland border."

Gov. Tom Wolf in October expanded the gaming law, creating opportunities for 10 mini-casinos also called satellite or Category 4 casinos. The state anticipates generating $100 million if all 10 licenses are sold. However, an estimated 1,017 municipalities within the commonwealth have opted out of gaming expansion.

Vogler, however, noted that there is interest in Reading, Williamsport, State College, Altoona, Johnstown and Lawrence County which under the law is far enough from casinos in Allegheny and Erie counties not to be seen as competing. The county is also 30 miles from the Penn National Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown.

"The advantage of a mini-casino here is they will have table games — which they do not have in Austintown — and that is a no-smoking facility. A Pennsylvania casino will have designated smoking areas," he said, noting that the Austintown facility is smoke free.

Based on the first bid, Vogler said, he believes interested bidders will now retool their strategies for when they return in two weeks. He said he also believes future bids will be lower than the $50.1 million bid for the initial license. What he doesn't know if he'll attend the next bid award.

"I'll have to talk it over with Steve (Craig) and Bob (Del Signore) to see if they feel it will go any good to maintain a presence," Vogler said.

Over the years Vogler has regularly attended Harness Racing Commission and Gaming Control Board meetings while Lawrence County remained in the running for a Category 1 racetrack/casino complex planned for Mahoning Township.

"In that time, I got to know a lot of the officials," he said. "In the year and a half since I've been here, five of the seven Gaming Board members have turned over. I only know two current board members."

New Castle Mayor Anthony Mastrangelo believes Lawrence County — and New Castle in particular — would be an ideal location for a casino.

"We're open for business and willing to talk to anyone who wants to come in," he said. Mastrangelo said he is not personally aware that anyone representing casino interests has visited the city.

"I invite them to see me," he said. "A casino could do us well. It could help us to get out of Act 47."

New Castle has been part of the Act 47 recovery plan for financially distressed cities since 2007. Under a change in the law, the city must get out of the program by 2019.

Mastrangelo agreed that existing sites in Union and Shenango townships could be good locations for a casino, "But they are not in the city," he said, adding, "I can think of at least three locations right now that would be ideal," The Cascade Galleria, which is in the heart of town offers 70,000-square-feet of developable space, is surrounded by free parking, "and the owner is very interested." Mastrangelo also believes the nearby former Post Office building on Kennedy Square would be an ideal casino location.

"This would benefit the downtown," he said. "These sites are available now

Mastrangelo added that the New Castle Area Transit Authority "takes six buses every day down to Pittsburgh's Rivers Casino. "If we had a casino, they could stay at home." 

Reprinted with permission of The New Castle News

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