Mini-casino could be in Chambersburg's future, thanks to new mayor's tie-breaking vote

Written by Jim Hook/The Chambersburg Public Opinion | Dec 12, 2017 5:52 PM

(Chambersburg) - The borough could host a mini-casino in the future.

Walter Bietsch, interim mayor and mayor-elect, cast the deciding vote on Monday.

Municipalities have until Dec. 31 to vote to exclude mini-casinos, the latest gambling parlors sanctioned by the Pennsylvania legislature. The state's expanded gaming law allows up to 10 of the "category 4" casinos statewide.

Nearly 450 municipalities so far have passed resolutions declaring they will not host a mini-casino. The seven in Franklin County are the boroughs of Greencastle and Mont Alto and Fannett, Hamilton, Letterkenny, Peters and Southampton townships.

A mini-casino can have 300 to 750 slot machines and up to 40 table games. Pennsylvania has 10 large casinos, each permitted to host up to 5,000 slots and 250 tables.

The municipality and the county hosting a mini-casino each would receive 1 percent of the gross receipts from table games and 2 percent from slot machines. That could max out at $1.6 million each, based on current returns on activity at large casinos.

The state also gets revenue from a 50-percent tax on slots' gross receipts and 14-percent on table games.

Studies of gambling have linked casinos to traffic problems and community social ills - from child neglect to domestic violence, from drug and alcohol abuse to prostitution.

Chambersburg council deadlocked at 5-5 on the question of banning a mini-casino. Councilman Herb Dolaway, Jeremey Cate, Alice Elia, Heath Talhelm and Sean Scott voted in favor of the ban. Councilman Lou Cowles, Samantha Bietsch, Kathy Leedy, Allen Coffman, and Sharon Bigler voted "no" to banning a mini-casino. Bietsch also voted in opposition to the ban.

"I don't think we should shut a door without knowing what's behind it," Bietsch said. "I don't gamble. I have better things to do with my money. It's not my place, or the place of government, to dictate to our constituents in which direction their moral compasses should point.

"It wasn't a moral decision for me. It was more of a strategic decision for me. We can establish through our codes and planning where they come."

Tax revenue from a mini-casino could be used to support the borough police department or to help pay back the debt for the aquatics center, he said.

A mini-casino would be similar to the off-track betting parlor that the borough once hosted, Bietsch said. Borough police did not have problems with the off-track betting establishment on Walker Road.

The borough can set a casino's minimum distance from schools and churches, he said.

After the casino vote, council directed the solicitor and staff to review the borough's planning and zoning regulations. Proposed changes dealing with mini-casinos are due in the first quarter of 2018.

The state is to auction off the mini-casino licenses on July 31.

Communities that do not pass a resolution by Dec. 31 declaring themselves off limits to a mini-casino are open to hosting one.

"This was a very difficult situation, and we needed to make a decision today," Dolaway said after the vote. "It would have been nice to have more time to get feedback. It could have a dramatic impact on who we are as a community and what we stand for."

Doloway made the motion to ban a casino. Chambersburg is ideally located for a mini-casino, he said. People would come from Maryland and West Virginia.

"In Chambersburg I like the way of life we have," Dolaway said. "I'd rather be known as a town with a nice downtown. I'd rather be known for (walking and biking) instead of as a casino town."

Voting to ban the casino would not have shut the door, he said. A developer interested in a location in Chambersburg could still approach the municipality and ask for permission to move here. The ban would have given the borough better control over where the mini-casino could be located in the borough. Council then could have rescinded the ban.

Borough Manager Jeffrey Stonehill said it is unlikely that borough council will revisit the issue. Council has no meetings scheduled before the state deadline.

The bidding for the 10 mini-casino licenses is open initially to the owners of stand-alone casinos, then smaller casino operators and then to outside interests. The highest bidders have until the end of January 2019 to provide details of their casino sites.

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The Chambersburg Public Opinion. 

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