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State College Borough Council Votes To Prohibit Casino, For Now

by Geoff Rushton

State College Borough Council on Monday passed a resolution that prevents, at least for now, potential development of a mini-casino in the borough.

The measure makes State College the first, though very likely not the last, Centre Region municipality to pass such a resolution.

In October, Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation expanding gambling in Pennsylvania to allow for 10 Category 4 satellite casinos, which can have between 300 and 750 slot machines and table games. The new casinos would be owned and operated by some of the 12 current casino license owners in the state and cannot be placed within 25 miles of an existing casino.

Municipalities have until Dec. 31 to opt out from consideration as a site for a mini-casino, a decision that can be rescinded at a later date. Those that don’t opt out by the end of the year cannot do so in the future, and if a developer chose to build a casino locally, it only would be subject to local zoning ordinances.

That has been the main driver for local governing bodies to consider opt out resolutions. If they vote to prohibit now, they can change their minds later, but can’t reverse course if they don’t opt out and later decide they don’t want a casino.

Borough council passed the resolution unanimously.

“This gives us all of the options,” council member Theresa Lafer said. “If we let this go and don’t pass it before the end of the year, we don’t have any options. We are stuck with a particular choice we may or may not want down the line. I would rather see how this works in other communities… then make a decision on it.”

Under the legislation, a host municipality is entitled to collect half of the local assessment paid by the casino — 2 percent of gross revenue from table games and 4 percent of gross revenue from slot machines — an amount that is capped at 50 percent of the municipality’s 2016-2017 budget.

Borough resident Jay Meashey, who spoke during public comment, said that potential revenue is a reason why council should not pass the resolution. He said that if a nearby municipality were instead to get a casino, it could result in the borough bearing costs from visitors but none of the benefits.

He noted that while the borough can rescind its opt-out decision, the auction process for Category 4 casino licenses will begin in January.

“If we say now, ‘No,’ we can revisit that decision later, but what’s going to stop College Township or some other municipality close by from saying yes, from burdening us again with their visitors, people giving them revenue and only costing us?” Meashey said. “This might be an opportunity to say to the CBICC, to the county, to the Redevelopment Authority to the Downtown Improvement District, is there a plan? Is there a place to locate a casino in the borough to bring us the revenue?”

College Township is the only municipality adjacent to State College that has not yet put the opt-out resolution on a board agenda, and Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said he believes all Centre Region municipalities will consider the measure.

Also on Monday night, Ferguson Township supervisors authorized drafting of a resolution and advertising a public hearing. Board chair Steve Miller said that given the small window to opt out “the only prudent thing to do is have a resolution,” that can be rescinded later.

Harris Township supervisors will consider a resolution at their Dec. 11 and Patton Township supervisors will do so at their Dec. 13 meetings, both boards having discussed the measure earlier in November.

In State College, Council President Tom Daubert said while the borough doesn’t have as much property to be developed as surrounding townships, a casino owner would likely find the space if State College were available and deemed a desirable location.

He said his concern is with a casino being located close to Penn State.

“It would be great to get all this money,” Daubert said. “We have 40,000 students in the borough or right around the borough and I think this would be a disaster for the student body of Penn State.”

Lafer echoed Daubert’s comment, saying that gambling could pose a risk to students like alcohol does.

“One of the problems we have is very young adults trying to figure out what they can and cannot safely do in their lives,” she said. “We know along with alcohol and drugs, gambling can be an addiction. I would not like to see a casino of any kind, even the simplest slots, sitting in walking distance, because we know some percent of those students are going to find out they are addicted to gambling.”

Lafer added that she does not like the idea that the borough’s benefit would be a cut of gambling revenue.

“I am very uncomfortable overall with the idea of instead of paying fees or taxes that we just take money from gambling and try to live on it,” she said. “I find that irrational, possibly immoral, and it always means that it is the most regressive money source we can put out there. I don’t think that’s fair to the people who can least afford it.”

Centre County Gazette’s Sean Yoder contributed to this report.

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