For decades, Beaver Stadium has towered over the eastern end of the Penn State University campus in State College, Pennsylvania. About four miles down the road from the home of the Nittany Lions, a developer hopes to build a casino with slot machines, table games, and a sportsbook.
The casino proposal took a step forward on January 4, when Bally’s Corp. signed an agreement with real estate developer and Penn State alumnus Ira Lubert to plan and construct the $120 million casino near the Nittany Mall.
“Ira is an experienced real estate developer with significant ties to the greater Centre County community and a proven track record in Pennsylvania gaming,” said Bally CEO George Papanier. “We look forward to working with Ira, not only to build and develop the facility, but to contribute to the surrounding community.”
Lubert invested in Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, and also developed the Valley Forge Casino Resort in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. “I am excited to have Bally’s as our partner to complement our vision, industry experience, and financing capabilities,” he said in a statement.
Bally’s has sought a foothold in Pennsylvania for some time. “There’s no question that legalization of online gambling and sports betting makes Pennsylvania an attractive gaming market,” said Papanier, whose company operates 11 casinos in seven states.
This casino will be No. 13 in the Keystone State, but the ones nearest to Centre County are Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course in Grantville, 109 miles away, and Live! Casino Pittsburgh, 114 miles from University Park.
“That area is an underserved region, and we look forward to bringing our first-class amenities and offerings to the community,” Papanier said, adding that Bally’s is working to secure regulatory approval for the casino. “We believe that once we are operational, the casino’s sports betting and online gaming offerings will have tremendous appeal.”
Perhaps the most important factor is the casino’s presence in the shadows of Penn State and its fanatical collegiate fan base, which extends way beyond the student body. Residents within a 50-mile radius pack the stadium on most fall Saturdays, with the obvious exception of those in 2020. Penn State also has one of the largest, most active alumni bases.
But will the location of a sportsbook so close to a major university with a major athletic program present poor optics? Both local tourism officials and the university say not to worry.
”Casinos are a highly regulated industry. We expect no issues and expect everyone to play by the rules,” said Fritz Smith, president and CEO of the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, which oversees tourism promotion in Centre County.
For its part, Penn State has no objections. The university has established numerous educational programs about sports betting, frequently updates its compliance protocols and also meets regularly on the issue of sports wagering with staff members, student-athletes, coaches and parents.
“We plan to continue and, where needed, expand our overarching efforts to safeguard the integrity of our athletics program,” said Lisa M. Powers, senior director of news and media relations at Penn State.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board awarded Lubert the right to seek a Category 4 license based on his winning bid in September. It gives licensees the right to operate 300 to 750 slot machines and also seek permission for up to 30 table games, said board spokesman Doug Harbach. These casinos can seek to operate a sportsbook.
Lubert paid a $10 million fee for the slot-machine license, Harbach said, and with Bally’s help, will pay an additional fee for a table-game license and a sportsbook license. The agreement with Lubert gives Bally’s a majority equity interest in the partnership, including 100 percent of retail sports betting, online sports betting and iGaming.
Bally’s anticipates completing the application for final approval by March. Construction could begin by the end of June. The goal is to open the casino in the first half of 2022, when the coronavirus hopefully is well in the rear-view mirror.
“We do not believe (the pandemic) presents a risk to the project,” Papanier said. “We’ve successfully operated our bricks-and-mortar properties throughout the pandemic while complying with all CDC mandates and local government protocols. As such, we’re confident that if Covid-19 remains a factor when this project opens, we’ll be prepared to operate it in a manner that’s safe for our customers and employees and that generates value for our stakeholders.”
The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau welcomes the project as a way to boost visitation. The casino will be in a strategic location with easy access to University Park Airport and driving routes Interstate 99, Interstate 80 and Pennsylvania Route 322.
As a bonus, the casino could be a boon to students enrolled in Penn State’s School of Hospitality Management, which offers a gaming initiative track. This is a focus area that students may elect for gaming-focused educational content and experiences.
“We feel that the placement of the casino here in Happy Valley will be a benefit to the economy of the entire region,” Smith said.
The casino will add another four-season tourism asset, he added. “We would expect that local restaurants, shopping and hotels would see a rise in revenue from having a casino located nearby. A casino will give travelers yet another reason to explore our valleys.”