Hearing for proposed casino draws standing-room-only crowd

 

A Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board hearing over a proposed casino in Berks County drew more than 300 people on Monday.

Wyomissing-based Penn National Gaming is proposing to build Hollywood Casino Morgantown -- a $110-million mini-casino -- near the Morgantown interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Caernarvon Township.

Nearly 50 speakers, not including representatives from Penn National Gaming, made their opinions known.

"This is one of the larger ones we've had in some time," said Doug Harbach, the gaming control board's director of communications. "We want to hear what people have to say."

On one side, favoring the mini-casino, were Penn National executives, economic development representatives, some local government officials, and leaders and members of local construction and trade unions.

On the other side, opposing the license, were religious leaders, community activists, residents and other officials from surrounding communities in Chester and Lancaster counties.

The plan John Finamore, Penn National's senior vice president of regional operations, and Chris Rogers, senior vice president of corporate development, described the major features and benefits of the proposed 81,245-square-foot mini-casino. It would be built on 36 acres of land on Route 10, near the intersection of Interstate 176 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The main access to the casino would be on the north side of the building, with secondary access from the west.

"This creates a great opportunity for local construction workers and contractors and business suppliers and so on to participate in a project like this," said Ryan Helms, business manager for IBEW Local Union 743. "If our guys don't go to work, they're obviously not making money and taking care of their families."

The proposed mini-casino would have 750 slot machines and 30 table games, with room to add 10 more table games. The casino would also handle sports and parimutuel betting. It would also have a 200-seat fine-dining restaurant, an entertainment lounge, a food court and parking for 1,000 cars. Penn National would relocate its off-track betting from Lancaster. The mini-casino would open in late-2020.

Rogers said the new casino would add $1.6 million new tax revenue to Berks County's Caernarvon Township.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring in 275 construction jobs and 250 full-time jobs," said Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, a Democrat.

The full-time jobs are expected to pay an average of $20 per hour, according to Penn National representatives.

"We need development like this. This is exactly what we should be doing in this county and the surrounding areas," Helms said. "We've lost too much business over the years for middle class families."

Randy Peers, the president and CEO of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance, supported Barnhardt and emphasized that most of the jobs created would hire local people.

Those opposed Officials of surrounding municipalities, while not directly opposing the project, expressed concerns. Gary Elston, a West Nantmeal Township, Chester County, supervisor, expressed concern that a traffic study did not properly evaluate the impact on the smaller roads surrounding the mini-casino - Routes 23, 401, 82 and Little Conestoga Road. Elston said he thought a traffic signal would have to be added at the intersection of Routes 23 and 401 and that Penn National Gaming should pick up the cost.

Dwight Frizen, president of the Elverson Borough Council in Chester County, said that while Caernarvon Township reaps the tax benefits, surrounding municipalities will have to pay for increased infrastructure costs. He said he believes that Caernarvon should compensate its neighbors for their burden.

Opponents of the mini-casino mostly focused their opposition on two areas: the social costs of gambling and the destruction of the rural, small-town atmosphere of the community.

"We must stop the moral slide of our culture. Gambling takes most of its revenues from those least able to lose it," said Samuel E. Rohrer, the president of both the American Pastors Network and the Pennsylvania Pastors Network, and a former state representative for the area.

Resident Larry Clauser went further, talking about a close friend who committed suicide over his gambling addiction.

"The blood of others will be on your hands," Clauser said.

Samuel Petersheim, a lifelong resident of Morgantown, said that the casino does not represent the community's ethics or values.

"What product does a casino produce?" Petersheim asked. "Nothing. It's just an exchange of money. Commercial gambling is predatory."

Ted Allan, who moved to the area four years ago, said that a mini-casino would destroy the neighborliness that made him want to live in a small town.

"If they build that thing, I'm afraid I'm going to have to move," Allan said.

"This change in our community does not represent who we are," Michele King said. "We are not urban, or even suburban, where most casinos are."

King had circulated a petition in the Twin Valley School District opposing the mini-casino and collected more than 1,000 signatures in 13 days.

Next steps "We've heard a lot of things over the years, pro and con," the gaming control board's Harbach said. "Bottom line, the board's going to take a look at the evidence. They're gonna take a look at what the community thinks about about the project, and they're also gonna look to see if this project can sustain itself financially, for the long term."

A full video of Monday's hearing will be posted to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board's website by next week.

A separate public hearing will be held later in Harrisburg for Penn National to offer oral arguments and answer gaming control board members' questions.

"We will take all the evidence," Harbach said. "The board will review it, and then in the next few months, we'll have another hearing, a licensing hearing, in Harrisburg and then decide whether or not go forward."