Nittany Mall Casino Is a Bad Bet for Our Community’s Future

The proposed casino at the Nittany Mall would have 750 slot machines.

I’ve written something like 125 columns for StateCollege.com over the last six years. But never a “negative” piece.  

I’ve always felt it was my niche, even my calling, to lift up Happy Valley’s charitable organizations, groups like Strawberry Fields, Out of the Cold and Centre Volunteers in Medicine.  And to salute unsung heroes in our community, people like Lydia Abdullah, Doug Arnold, Ellen Campbell and Dr. Roy Love. 

But never a negative column. Until now.

Though I would prefer to focus on the thousand points of light in my beloved hometown, I can’t ignore a looming threat of darkness. Some call it a “mini-casino,” a breathtaking way to downplay this place that is planned to hold a whopping 750 slot machines. (Yes, 750!) I’ll just call it the “Nittany Mall casino.” 

“But Bill,” you might say, “this casino could give our region an economic boost.” 

“Yes,” I would respond, “but any boost from a casino would be short-term and far outweighed by the ongoing costs to the region.”    

Or you might add, “Isn’t it too late to stop the casino?”

And I would say, “It is late, but it’s certainly not too late.” A lot of things can still happen prior to November 16, the earliest possible date upon which the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board can approve or deny a license for the casino. 

THE GOOD GUYS

A typical drama usually has at least one good guy and one bad guy. While investigating the scenario that threatens to put a casino in the Nittany Mall, I encountered four such “good guys.” And my main question to them was, “Why are you in opposition?” 

  • Joan Bouchard is a retired resident of Patton Township, a woman who came to Happy Valley in 2017 after serving in Honduras for 10 years as a teacher and translator. “My younger son became a gambling addict while I was away in Honduras,” she says. “I found out he was an addict when I came back for his wedding. He took all of the money that people had given as wedding gifts and went to the casino after the reception was over.“ (Even with her support, it took well over a decade for her son to overcome his habit.) Today, Bouchard speaks out against the casino because of things she saw and heard in New England while helping her son. “It really revolted me,” she says. “Older people would go down there (a casino) and squander their Social Security checks. They would sit there in front of the slot machines with diapers on so that if they felt they were on a hot streak and they had to go to the bathroom, they would just pee into their diaper. I just could not think of a worse way to have people live out their senior years.” 
  • Susan Strauss is a dynamic Penn State faculty member who adopted six children from Ethiopia as a 55-year old single woman. A College Township resident, she explains her opposition to the casino in light of her concern for Penn State students and, of course, for her own kids who are now ages 17 to 23. A veteran researcher, Strauss did a search on Google Scholar with the terms “college students, university students, gambling” and found 21 academic articles published between 2018 and 2021. “Not one of these pieces reveals positive outcomes,” she wrote in correspondence to College Township and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. “All demonstrate risks and dangers to young adults while engaging in gambling activities. Various studies indicate that 6% to 14.6% of college students who gamble will eventually report gambling problems.”
  • Andrew Shaffer first came to Happy Valley from the Philadelphia area as a Penn State student in 1999, and today he lives in State College with his wife, Erin, and their two young children. How did he first become troubled by the impact of casinos? “My childhood home is located less than a mile from where Ira Lubert (the primary force behind the Nittany Mall project) built the Valley Forge casino during my student days at Penn State. The handicapped parking spots in front of the casino were always occupied, so you could tell…that people who were disabled would get their Social Security disability checks each month and go to the casino and gamble them away.”  
  • Amber Concepcion, like me, is a “double Lion.”  She graduated from State High in 1997 and from Penn State in 2001.  Today, she serves as a member of the State College school board and she is also busy with her kids—18, 15 and 12 years old.  Although her views do not necessarily reflect those of other board members, she freely states that her opposition to the casino stems from “my interest is in a healthy community and a healthy environment for kids in our community.” So why is she uneasy about the possibility that a casino will come to the Nittany Mall?  “My concern is that easy access to a casino can make it more difficult for people who have gambling addictions to be able to curb that behavior. And we know that gambling addictions can cause difficult dynamics in families.” 

IS THERE A BAD GUY?

Is there a “bad guy” in the potential launch of the Nittany Mall casino? That’s where this drama brings me pain, since I am unwilling to label Ira Lubert as anything of the sort. I still remember following his inspiring battle, 50-some years ago, to win a regular position on the Penn State wrestling team. And then I interacted with him while preparing to write a 2018 column about his remarkable contributions to the university as an alumnus. But of course, I had no inkling in 2018 that he would place the winning bid of $10 million for a Category 4 casino in the Centre Region. (In January 2021, Bally’s Corporation announced that it was partnering with Lubert on the mini-casino.)     

Although I didn’t know too much about Lubert’s business career when I wrote my 2018 story, I did realize that he was fabulously successful. And I knew that he had been super generous to his alma mater—giving his time as a member of the Board of Trustees for more than 12 years and giving funds to a wide variety of entities within Penn State. 

But the back story of Ira Lubert says even more about the man, and it makes his current project sad to me. You see, Ira was a two-time New Jersey state high school champion in wrestling, but at Penn State, he fought an annual battle for the heavyweight spot in the lineup and invariably lost to Dave Joyner, the former Pennsylvania high school champ.  In 1971, the excellent Lubert lost to the more-excellent Joyner in a legendary “wrestle-off” match that took seven overtimes.  

Many athletes would have grown bitter from disappointment. But not Lubert. For all these years, he has remained steadfastly loyal to his alma mater and to the wrestling program.

So here’s a man of accomplishment and loyalty, qualities that I highly respect. But if I had a chance to talk with him today, I would question why it seems that he didn’t apply his sense of loyalty to the current context. Ira, you know about casinos, so why would you even consider putting a source of potential addiction so close to so many impressionable young people? Have you really considered the fact that an untold number of Penn State students will suffer if this facility is built just 3-4 miles from the campus?  

WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?

What really are the issues that make the new casino a threat to the Happy Valley we cherish? Just how negative are the realities that surround this potential gambling establishment? Let’s take a tour of a few prominent hazards.

  • Addiction. In a May 14 letter to the editor of StateCollege.com, Andrew Shaffer explained why he strongly opposes the Nittany Mall casino but has no major problem with skills games or the lottery.  “Modern casinos,” he wrote, “create a controlled environment that keeps gambling addicts at their gaming machines until they have run out of money. They intentionally have no windows or clocks to prevent people from realizing how long they have been gambling… The games themselves are engineered to use lights and sounds to create the impression that everyone around you is playing and winning – even though this is obviously not the case.”  And then he concluded, “Other forms of gambling like skills games and the lottery do not control the gambling environment in these ways, and because of this difference hardly anyone has lost their home or their life’s savings playing these types of games—however, many people who gamble at casinos have lost both.”
    And in a personal conversation with me, Shaffer added his special concern about the proposed Nittany Mall casino. “We know from scientific research that college students are about six times more susceptible to gambling addiction than adults over the age of 25. So the prospect of putting a casino less than five miles away from the 48,000 students who attend Penn State University Park is a recipe for a perfect storm.”  
  • Crime. According to Shaffer, “There have been instances when people have been robbed after winning at a casino and killed when the robbery goes bad. (In October of 2021, a man won big at Parx Casino in Bensalem and then was followed from the casino to his home in Plainsboro, New Jersey, by a man who shot him dead that same night during an attempted robbery.) Other issues would include child neglect when gambling addicts leave their children in their cars or a nearby hotel or even just leave them at home unattended while they gamble. And there can be domestic abuse issues when a gambling addict is under severe financial pressure. And depending on the study that you look at, about 30 to 40% of gambling addicts will attempt suicide because they get into unrecoverable amounts of debt and they become hopeless.”
  • Undetected Economic Harm. Casinos typically tout the jobs they create and the taxes they pay to local municipalities. But, says Shaffer, they rarely tell the entire story.“They create jobs at one site, and you can see that very easily. They pay taxes to one municipal government, and you can see that very easily. But for the benefits that are created, there are three to 10 times as much harm. Because that harm is spread over something like a 30-mile radius, it’s very difficult to identify.”
    Susan Strauss also doubts the claims of economic gain, and she adds a related concern. Although the casino might add several hundred jobs, she wonders if such entry-level service jobs are needed in our community. “There are so many places that are not staffed properly,” she says.

WON’T THEY JUST GAMBLE ELSEWHERE?

I have a distinguished friend who doesn’t understand my dismay over the casino. “What’s the big deal?” he says.  “Most of the college students are already doing online sports betting.” Of course, his point is correct—but not his conclusion. Regardless of how many Penn State students engage in online sports betting, a nearby casino poses much greater threats. Research shows that the casino experience is far more addictive than online betting. (For this and other topics, go to https://saynocasino.org, the locally produced storehouse of information that pertains to the proposed Nittany Mall casino.) 

Apart from such research, consider your own experience. During the height of the pandemic, how many activities did you do with friends via Zoom that were somehow lifeless? And didn’t those same activities become thrilling when you enjoyed them with your friends in-person? The same with gambling. The casino environment stimulates excitement—and potential addiction—far more than a passive computer experience in someone’s dorm room.

Meanwhile, others downplay the impact of a casino in the Centre Region by suggesting that if it’s not built, people will just drive to gambling establishments in York or near Harrisburg. But even if that’s true, the frequency of casino exposure will be far lower and the likelihood of gambling problems will be greatly decreased. According to the stoppredatorygambling.org website, “A large-scale study in 2004 found that people who live within 10 miles of a casino have twice the rate of pathological and problem gambling as those who do not. Another study found that the four counties in Nevada with the greatest access to casinos had the highest problem gambling rates while the four counties with the least access had the lowest rate.”

IS IT REALLY TOO LATE?

A lot of water has already gone over the dam — appropriately or not. On Dec. 31, 2017, College Township became the only Centre Region municipality not to opt out of availability to host a mini-casino.  Then, Ira Lubert won the bid for the mini-casino on Sept. 2, 2020.  And, then, on Sept. 16 of last year, College Township approved a land development plan for the former Macy’s location at the Nittany Mall.  But two key steps remain. First, a non-winning bidder for the casino license (Cordish Companies, operating as Stadium Casino in Pennsylvania) has a still-pending lawsuit in Commonwealth Court against Lubert and the gaming commission that claims the bid was improperly awarded.  And the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board will issue a license or deny the casino’s license application at a future meeting

Local opponents of the casino continue to urge concerned citizens to write letters to College Township at [email protected], and momentum is clearly growing. StateCollege.com recently noted “a seemingly endless stream of letters for nearly a year,” and the Centre Daily Times referred to “countless letters.” As a result, College Township Council is now pursuing an independent impact study regarding the casino. And the council is also evaluating the possibility of sending a letter to the PGCB which would request denial of the casino’s license.

(A very unscientific recent poll on StateCollege.com also had 1,498 respondents who said they were opposed to the casino and 385 who said they were in favor, as of Monday morning.)

Andrew Shaffer is urging concerned individuals — especially residents of College Township — to attend the council’s meeting this Thursday evening at 7 p.m. and to speak on behalf of the proposed letter to the PGCB. The link for the meeting agenda is https://www.collegetownship.org/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_09152022-256, and the information about how to attend the meeting is on the agenda’s first page. 

Is a ninth inning victory in the works? Perhaps. There are still many “ifs” in the situation, but Shaffer and his co-volunteers have more hope than ever before. Says Shaffer, “If the College Township council sends a letter representing its constituents, stating that a casino is not in the interest of the township and it’s not wanted here, then that would carry tremendous weight with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.”  

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