WPSU-header-triangles.png
Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Take Note: Opponents of a casino proposed for the Nittany Mall in Centre County on why they're trying to stop it

Head shots of Susan Strauss on the left and Andrew Shaffer on the right.
Photos provided
/
Susan Strauss, left, who lives in College Township, and Andrew Shaffer, who lives in State College, have been leading opposition efforts to a mini-casino a developer wants to build in the Nittany Mall in College Township, Centre County.

In Pennsylvania casinos are a major industry generating tens of millions and revenues for the companies and taxes for the state and townships and cities where they're run. One of those casinos could be built in the Nittany Mall in Centre County if it gets approval from the state board that oversees the industry. But the project has opponents who are speaking out against the proposed casino.

On this week's Take Note, Anne Danahy talked with two of those people who have been organizing opposition to the casino. Andrew Shaffer lives in State College with his wife and two children. He is one of the organizers fighting to stop the casino from getting approval. Susan Strauss lives in College Township where the proposed casino will be located. She's the single mother of six adopted children, and is also one of the organizers of efforts to rally opposition to the casino.

Here's that conversation:

Anne Danahy
Andrew Shaffer and Susan Strauss, thank you for talking with us.

Andrew Shaffer 
Thank you for having us.

Susan Strauss 
Thank you.

Anne Danahy 
I thought it would be helpful to give a little bit of background information about the proposed casino we're talking about. The developers are a former Penn State trustee, Ira Lubert, working with the casino company Bally's. And they wanted to build what's known as a mini-casino in the Nittany Mall. Andrew, for people not familiar with this project, can you bring us up to speed? Where do things stand now?

Andrew Shaffer 
Well, last August, there was a public input hearing that was not very widely publicized here in State College. And the casino developer and some of his supporters who are involved with the project went to the meeting and presented that they were in favor. But most of the rest of the community didn't even know that this was taking place. Subsequent to that College Township has granted the approvals for everything that's needed at the local level for the casino to move forward. And currently, the Pennsylvania gaming control board is accepting public feedback regarding the casino. The feedback period ends on June 12, at 5 o'clock p.m. But prior to that time, anybody in the community who would like to is able to submit their comments to boardclerk@pa.gov. And that will be received by the gaming control board and reviewed by them in evaluating the licensing decision over time. Since that initial hearing has happened, the small group of us who have been organizing opposition to the casino have written a number of letters to the editor and local media publications. We've been going door to door with petitions. We have an online petition setup. We've established a website, saynocasino.org that has information about why we're opposing the casino and what people can do to aid in that effort and help protect our community. And we've really seen a tremendous groundswell of opposition to the casino. As this has progressed over the last 10 months. There have been 704 people have now submitted letters to the gaming control board opposing the casino. Only 68 letters have been submitted in support that is a 10.3 to one margin of opposition. In the most recent batch of feedback that was posted from the period between April 15 to May 23, there were 144 messages opposing the casino and only four in support, which is 36 to one margin of opposition. And that feedback doesn't include the petitions. On May 13, w e submitted a petition opposing the casino that had 1,744 distinct signatures that were collected using a combination of hardcopy and online petitions. We look at both petitions and remove any duplicate entries. So that if a person signs both of them, their name only counts once. And at that time, we had 1,744 signatures. And also there were 414 comments associated with that. Subsequent to that we've continued collecting signatures on these petitions. Our overall estimate right now is that over 2,500 people have signed these petitions. And we are submitting these petitions to the Gaming Control Board, actually probably on the day that this show airs. In order to get it in before the deadline on June 12. The overwhelming majority of the people who signed the petitions live within a 15 minute drive of the casino or regularly commute into the community where the casino is located. As part of the petitions they have provided their contact information to substantiate where they live. And also to allow the Gaming Control Board to follow up with them if needed to verify that they do in fact object to the casino. So it's a very well documented petition. And to our knowledge, this is the largest petition and opposition effort that has taken place in Pennsylvania, in opposition to a casino with the exception of the campaign to stop the casino in Gettysburg, which was successful.

Anne Danahy 
So you're both coordinating this petition as you mentioned against the casino and urging people to write to the Pennsylvania gaming control board and they're ultimately going to make the decision about it. And Susan, why are you helping lead this effort? Why are you so strongly opposed to this proposed casino

Susan Strauss 
You know, originally, I didn't feel that strongly against the casino, I sort of bought into the arguments that that were being put forward that it would help the community, it would help the economy, it would revive them all. But then the more I thought about it, and the more I read about it, the more I realized it was, you know, it seems more like a no brainer kind of endeavor, especially taking place in this community State College, which is a very family oriented community. And as you know, I have six kids. We feel that State College is a very safe place to live. And when we think about the ways that and read about the ways that casinos have changed communities, pretty much every place they go up. It just — to me — would provide a very negative change to our community. And then all of that, coupled with the research that shows that young adults and college students are especially high risk for gambling, addiction and other types of gambling disorders and other types of addiction. It's really, to me, it seems like an absolute no brainer.

Anne Danahy 
Can you give an example of what types of specific negative effects that you're concerned about?

Susan Strauss 
Yeah, sure. So as far as real estate property values going down, it's sort of documented fact that property values decrease, crime rates increase. And then even in a lot of commentary that's coming up in the online petition, we can see personal experiences with regard to people who've lived close, either worked at a casino or lived close to a casino. And no one has actually mentioned that their lifestyle has improved. In fact, they talk about how crime rates increase, poverty increases.

Anne Danahy 
Andrew, what about you? Why do you feel so strongly that this casino should not be built?

Andrew Shaffer 
Well, there are multiple reasons that I oppose it as well. The first and foremost concern that I have is the impact that it has on students. We know from the research that's available, and this is documented on the saynocasino.org website, if anybody like to verify that the gambling addiction rate among the general adult population is about 1%. But among young adults and college students, that rate is actually 6%. Or according to some of the most recent research it may even be higher, potentially as a result of the increase in gambling advertisements that have been coming out in the past few years since it was more widely legalized. This casino is being proposed for development just four miles away from the 48,000 students who attend the Penn State University Park. If 6% of those students become addicted to gambling, we're talking about thousands of students each year, who are potentially going to end up dropping out with large student debt and a gambling addiction instead of having a degree. And I think that that would be disastrous for those students and for their families, as well as for Penn State's reputation as an institution. I think that can be very, very destructive to the overall community. There is additional research that shows that the gambling addiction rate in communities located within 10 miles of a casino is twice that of people who are farther away. In addition to the impact on the students. As I read about the arguments in favor of the casino, I realized that almost all of them are specious. They sound good, but they're false. And the casino claims that it's going to bring jobs and what they're really implying there is that it's going to create a net positive impact on the job situation in the community. It is true that the casino will create jobs in the casino itself, and it will attract revenue into the stores in the mall. But the casino is not an economically productive enterprise. It is really a form of entertainment. The only situation in which a casino is able to really benefit the community that hosts it is if it brings in a large numbers of tourists from elsewhere and have relatively few people from a local community go to the casino. In the state of Pennsylvania by itself there are 16 land based casinos already. There's one in pretty much every populated area of the state, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg York area, the Poconos. They all have casinos of their own. And what Penn State teaches in their hospitality school, and what is correct is that the No. 1 factor that determines where people go to gamble is what casino is closest. And so to look at putting a casino here in State College, there's not going to be a large tourist draw for people to come gamble in a mini casino in the Nittany Mall. They're not going to leave bigger cities that have bigger casinos already. They're not going to come from out of state to come gamble with this tiny casino. That's the farthest place in Pennsylvania from any other casions from where they might be if they're out of state, they'd have to drive past other casinos to get here. And if they're coming to come to Penn State football games or Arts Fest or something like that, if they're going to the casino instead of going to a football game or Arts Fest, the casinos cannibalizing that tourists revenue that was already coming into the region. And so what you see when you actually analyze this, and it's been borne out in research about casinos that are built in saturated markets elsewhere in the country, is that a casino in a circumstance like State College will draw its customers almost exclusively from the local community. And what that means is that the revenue that it draws in, and the annual impact report for this casino says that it's going to generate $116 million of revenue on an annual basis is all going to come out of Centre County and central Pennsylvania. That's taking the discretionary spending that people in our region already have. And they're now no longer spending that on the local businesses that are part of our community that give the community its character, they're now spending it on slot machines, sports betting and gaming at the casino.

Anne Danahy 
Yeah, I'm just going to jump in and be the devil's advocate for a minute and say that, you know, the, the supporters would say that the casino is going to bring good paying jobs, about 400 permanent jobs is the estimate along with all the construction work, etc. And millions in tax revenues, and that there are a lot of visitors to the State College area, so it won't just be local residents who are going to the casino. How would you respond to that — that is actually going to be a big economic engine. And there was a lot of the people who spoke in favor of the casino, that was one of their main reasons.

Andrew Shaffer 
Well, what I'd say in response to that, I agree the casino will create several hundred jobs in the casino itself. But as I mentioned before, and also grant that some of the income will come from tourists outside of the area, but it will be a small fraction of the overall revenue. There's only a few days out of the year when we have big tourist draws in State College, when people come from that they're engaged in the tourist activities that they're coming here for. And not everybody in those families who come is going to, they're not going to go to the casino there, most of them are still going to do the thing that they came here for in the first place. So they'll get a small fraction of that towards revenues already coming in. And they will cannibalize it from those other tourist enterprises that are operating in the community, the bulk of their revenue is going to come from people in the local community. And that substitutionary effect, or cannibalization is probably a better word for it, the casino is taking the discretionary spending of supporting our local businesses and accruing it to itself. And that's going to put the local businesses out of business. And the overall effect there is going to be very extractive and it's going to be much greater than the positive effect that the casino has in its local location at the mall. And so the overall net impact on jobs is going to be negative. It's just that the benefits will be concentrated in the casino itself and highly visible, but you're going to see affects all of our Centre County, not just in College Township, but all over Centre County and all the other townships and municipalities here who are not getting any of that tax revenue for themselves. They're going to be losing revenue for their own businesses. And yes, it will generate tax revenue, what we're talking about is $116 million of revenue going into the casino. And the state taking perhaps a third or almost half of that out of Centre County. So it's no longer supporting our businesses here. It's not going to the state government who's going to redistribute that to what their priorities are, which are principally focused in the large population centers like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, they're not going to be putting the bulk of that money back into central Pennsylvania. They haven't done that up to this point. I'm not aware of any reason why they would begin doing that now. So yes, you're going to have large amounts of tax revenue coming out of this casino. But what you're doing there is you're imposing a regressive tax on mainly poor people in central Pennsylvania, who go to the casino to recreate or because they're addicted to it. And so none of that is a positive thing in my perspective.

Anne Danahy 
Susan, I wonder too, when you were collecting petitions and talking to people in the community about this, do you ever hear from supporters who people who say, "I'm only going to casinos once in a while. And just because someone else might have a problem with it doesn't mean that I shouldn't be able to enjoy it there." The classic example is alcohol. Some people do become addicted or have problem drinking, but that doesn't mean other people can't have it. I just wondered if you hear from people who were in favor of casinos.

Susan Strauss 
So as Andrew has said and written that we're at about a nine to one opposing so 90% of the people that we've spoken to and who've written in oppose the casino and 10% are in favor. And so even in our door to door collections of hardcopy signatures meeting some of our neighbors there were a handful of people who said that very who put forward that very argument that you know, the students are going to drink they're going to drink anyway. We you know, we have bars downtown but to have a casino within four miles, I mean, now kids can rent the electric bikes, they could just ride straight down College Avenue and go to the casino that way. And just to increase that kind of level of temptation too with regard to alcohol and gambling and this sort of sense of fun. It's, you know, like, Why add more, No. 1. No. 2, most of the drinking is already pretty, pretty much localized within the downtown area. And then to kind of bring more students, you know, if they're going to drive cars, drunk driving, if they're going to ride bikes, if they're going to take the bus, whatever, a large majority of people are also saying that we don't need to have a casino to sort of revise them all. There's so many other options that we could, that we could consider, that would involve more community oriented activities. So there was one more thing that I also wanted to add about the location about the mall, there happened to be two retail stores that sell guns, right there at the mall. One is the sporting goods store. And the other one is Rural King. And, you know, that also seems like a dangerous equation as well.

Andrew Shaffer 
Could I add an additional response to that as well?

Anne Danahy 
Sure, yeah.

Andrew Shaffer 
I would draw a very key distinction between alcohol and gambling, if a person goes into a bar, their body is the limit for how much alcohol they can consume. And we also have mitigations already set up, we're aware of the problems that alcohol causes people we're on the lookout for that we have EMS available to help people. But a person can go into a bar that can get blackout drunk, and there's only so much that they can drink, they can spend maybe a couple hundred dollars on alcohol in a night. The casino in a totally different class of destruction. If you go into a casino, it is very possible — mostly people don't do this — but it is possible for individuals and this has happened that they go in and they lose their life savings, they may even go into debt on credit cards, if they get sufficiently sucked into what's going on there, if they're susceptible to addiction. And so in a single night, you can destroy your life in a casino in a way that does not typically happen if somebody goes out to the bar. And so because of the magnitude of destruction there. That's why I would oppose the casino, as opposed to not opposing things like the bar. And similarly people have raised questions. Well, why do you oppose the casino, but you're not opposing the lottery, or you're not opposing skills game at convenience stores. I'm not in favor of a lottery or skills games at convenience stores. But I understand that people enjoy them, and I'm willing to tolerate that. But the casino is it takes it to a totally different level. Casinos are designed in such a way that they attract people in specifically they're designed to attract gambling addicts and and keep them there until they spent all their money. They don't have clocks, they don't have windows. The reason for that is to prevent people from seeing how long they've been in there. The machines that people play on the slot machines are specifically designed in from a psychological research standpoint to keep people's attention locked on it and oblivious to everything else in the world, including the person's family, their responsibilities outside of the casino their job. In the industry, they call it gambling to extinction. The goal is to keep a person out their machine until they spent every dollar that they have. And so the reality of the situation is that the casino it looks like it's fun entertainment for the whole community. There's another study that shows that 75% of the people who go into the casino will spend a couple of dollars, they'll have a good time they'll leave they won't be very impacted by it. But the remaining 25%, especially the 1% of the people who go in who truly are addicted to it, they provide the bulk of the revenue. And if you took that 30 to 60% of the casinos revenue that's derived from problem gamblers and addicts out of the equation that casinos would not be profitable.

Anne Danahy 
If you're just joining us. This is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Anne Danahy. And we're talking with Andrew Shaffer and Susan Strauss who are leading efforts against a casino a developer wants to build in the Nittany Mall in Centre County. So Andrew, you were talking about obviously some of the reasons you think that the casino industry is preying upon people who are problem gamblers. We could probably, you know, go back and forth for a while and I'm sure some people would argue well, no, this is an entertainment for the community at large and there's a small percentage who end up problem gamblers or addicted to gambling. But I want to also get to a couple other other topics to the project that one we're talking about, specifically in the Nittany Mall that's proposed. It's gone through a number of hoops and approvals and it started in 2017 when municipalities in Pennsylvania had the chance to decide whether they wanted to opt out of allowing the state's new mini casinos and college township decided not to opt out. And then obviously last year, there was the formal proposal for the casino there was a public hearing on it in August 2021. It was largely supporters who spoke at the hearing. What would you say to those supporters who would say: "If you didn't want to casino at the Nittany Mall or in the State College area that you should have come out while these decisions were being made?"

Andrew Shaffer 
Well, I would say that it's never too late to do the right thing. In my case, I wasn't aware that this was happening until shortly after the August 16 hearing last year. And it's not for one to paying attention. It's I have two children who I'm raising, I work full time as an engineer, life is busy. And there's lots of different issues that need to be addressed as we go through our lives. And I think that's typical of most of the people in the community. And now that people are aware that the casino development is being planned, we are seeing their response to it. And I don't think that you can negate that response simply because it wasn't provided sooner. I would also say that those of us who live in the other municipalities, all of our leaders said definitively that we do not want a casino here. College Township is the only municipality in our region that remained open to the possibility of a casino being built. And frankly, I believe that their leaders are being bad neighbors. By doing that College Township is set up to get a small percentage of their revenue from the casino into its direct municipal budget. None of the other municipalities around here are going to get anything from directly from the casino, we're still going to have to suffer the same social effects and economic blight that comes with the casino. But our municipalities are not going to be getting additional money in the form of this tax revenue that is paid to the municipality the way College Township will.

From the gaming industry standpoint, if they opened another casino here in State College, the people from State College who are currently going to the nearby casinos in places like Harrisburg, are no longer going to be doing that. They'll be coming here. And so those other casinos are going to have less revenue than they currently do. And their profitability goes down. And then what we see happening is they come back to the state governments and say we can't compete, we can't pay the amount of taxes that we originally promised you when we set this casino up. You need to give us a subsidy. You need to give us a tax rebate or reduce our taxes. Otherwise, we're not going to be able to stay in business. And at that point, the government has already been locked in with the casino as a business partner. They're counting on that casino to provide those jobs that initially created. And so the government gives in and now the government's no longer getting the tax money, which is the whole reason why they allowed the casino to be built in the first place. And we've seen this with Bally's Corporation. Actually, just last week, it was in the news that Bally's Corporation is suing to have the host municipalities and Rhode Island, saying that because COVID happened, our revenue was less and we shouldn't have to pay as much in property tax as we had agreed to from the beginning. And I believe it has yet to be determined what's going to happen there. But that is the company that is proposing to come into State College. And so I think their past behavior in this is a pretty good indication of how they may treat our community in the future.

Anne Danahy 
I'll again, I'll just be the devil's advocate and say that revenues might have slowed down a little bit, but they are continuing to go up and Pennsylvania. And in fact, overall, there was a record high for gaming revenues and Pennsylvania in March with nearly $463 million in revenues and gambling and fantasy contests brought the state $187 million in tax revenues in March of this year. So from the state's point of view from these municipalities that are hosting these casinos point of view that revenue so far is not slowing down.

Andrew Shaffer 
Well, essentially what you're making is an argument in favor of increased taxation. And you're choosing to apply a tax that is targeted at people who have mental illness and use gambling as a self medication or coping mechanism. And principally, you're targeting people who are poor. And in my mind that violates the principles of progressive taxation that have been established, that our nation largely upholds. And in addition to that, by trying to derive tax revenue from from and again, we're talking about in revenue terms rather than number of participant terms, but in revenue terms, it's the gambling addicts who drive the gaming industry. It's not only those gaming addicts themselves who are impacted by this, the research shows that for every gambling addict, there are at least six other people who are seriously impacted. By trying to take care of that gambling addict or being impacted, perhaps by absenteeism or being a victim of crime. There are numerous innocent people who are impacted by this who have no say in the decision who would never go to a casino themselves. It's an ongoing problem. In Pennsylvania, where hundreds of children, there are hundreds of incidents each year where children are locked in cars, while their caretakers go into a casino to gamble. They can be locked outside in the summer when it's hot, or in the winter, when it's really, really cold. We're talking about infants, toddlers, people who are not able to take care of themselves, some stranger or maybe a security guard finds them there. And thankfully, nobody has died yet. But the Gaming Control Board admitted they are complicit in allowing that to happen, and not taking adequate action to stop that. You have other effects where people become addicted to gambling. And when you become addicted to gambling, you stop caring about everything else. So maybe you stopped paying child support to your ex-spouse and your children, and then they're on their own. We have small family businesses in the area, the mom and pop shops in Central Pennsylvania. If the economic flows are redirected into the casino, and they go out of business, well, it's not their fault that that happened. They didn't do anything wrong to cause that but they're still bearing the consequences. And then of course, you have people who are directly impacted by casino related crime, there are armed robberies. There are gambling addicts. Most gambling addicts are white collar employees, and a significant fraction of them will steal from their employers in order to get money to gamble. There's automobile accidents, from driving under the influence. If somebody gets drunk at the casino, they lose a whole lot of money, they're prone to leave the casino right away, they're not thinking about anything else. They're just, they just want to get out of there, they're feeling bad. They go out, they run into somebody else, and kill them or cripple them for the rest of their life. That person did not choose to gamble. They didn't choose to take on this risk, but they still bear the consequences of this casino having come into the community. And so what you're what you're really advocating with that argument is that we ought to raise taxes, by exploiting a marginalized and vulnerable group of people in a way that will cause horrible secondary effects to innocent people. And I think that is just a terrible decision. If we need to raise revenue, the legislature ought to have the courage to say we need more revenue, and we're going to increase the tax rate across the board.

Anne Danahy 
The board deadline for accepting public comments is 5 p.m., Sunday, June 12. And we're taping this interview about a week before that. As of today, the board has not set a date for a public hearing and vote on this proposal, including whether that will happen at its June 15 meeting. So are you hopeful that they'll vote no?

Susan Strauss 
Absolutely. We've been putting in so much time and effort and talking to so many people. And so these are not even just our own feelings and opinions. It's, you know, overwhelmingly, the commentary against the casino is just overwhelmingly strong. So, you know, I think we're all hoping that the board will vote no.

Anne Danahy 
Andrew Shaffer and Susan Strauss, thank you both for talking with us.

Susan Strauss 
Thank you.

Andrew Shaffer 
Thank you for having us.

Anne Danahy 
We've been talking with Andrew Shaffer and Susan Strauss, who have been leading opposition to a casino a developer wants to build in the Nittany Mall in Centre County. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board set 5 p.m., Sunday, June 12, as the deadline for public comments. To listen to this and other episodes of Take Note, go to wpsu.org/Take Note. I'm Anne Danahy. WPSU.

Related Content