|By Denise Allabaugh, The Citizens' Voice,
Wilkes-Barre, Pa.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sept. 06, 2010--The opening of Pennsylvania casinos, such as Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs and Mount Airy Casino Resort, and the recent addition of table games have brought both positive and negative economic and social changes to nearby communities.
Casinos are directly linked to many positive impacts including the creation of 12,700 jobs statewide, of which 4,460 resulted from table games. Gaming money has reduced property taxes, generated funds for community projects and spurred economic development. They also serve as tourist and entertainment destinations, increasing traffic at nearby businesses.
Yet, casino gambling also has led to negative ripple effects such as bankruptcies, debts, divorces and mental health issues, according to critics and statistics from the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania. Critics also argue the more money people spend at casinos, the less discretionary income is left to spend at other local businesses. The Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania this year received 2,295 calls for help with gambling problems related to casinos, according to a report provided by executive director Jim Pappas. Statewide, those callers reported they gambled an average of 55.7 hours a week.
Nearby businesses boom
Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs has been a boom for nearby businesses since the casino opened in 2006 on Route 315 in Plains Township and subsequently added 82 table games to about 2,500 slot machines, a harness racetrack, 10 restaurants and two bars.
"Traffic has certainly picked up on Route 315," said Robert Tamburro, whose family owns Isabella Restaurant less than a half mile away. "We're seeing new faces."
Tamburro, a trustee and partner with TFP Limited real estate business which developed the Arena Hub in Wilkes-Barre Township and other retail sites, said as a result of the increased traffic, his company is moving forward with developments on parcels close to Mohegan Sun.
He is seeking tenants for a proposed three-story office building on the 8.5-acre parcel known as Richland 315 next to Isabella Restaurant. A retailer, which Tamburro would not identify, and possibly a bank may locate in front of that parcel.
Plans for another parcel known as Richland North, less than a quarter mile from Mohegan Sun, could include a hotel, banks or restaurants, Tamburro said. His family's real estate business also manages the Arena Hub and other parcels.
"It (Mohegan Sun) certainly enhances the real estate in the area and the ability to capture some of the traffic generated by it," Tamburro said.
Tamburro believes the value of land in the area has increased since Mohegan Sun has become a tourist destination.
"We'll see when we have it leased. We have some commitments already and that shows the strength of those sites," Tamburro aid. "It's safe to say we wouldn't be pursuing this project as aggressively if the casino wasn't up and operating. We wouldn't have gotten this kind of interest if the casino was not as successful as it has been so far."
Since table games were added at Mohegan Sun, Jeff Woytowich, owner of The Cafe on Route 315, said business at his restaurant has increased about 15 percent.
Sheetz on Route 315 also has seen more business as people are constantly stopping in to make purchases and fill their gas tanks on their way to Mohegan Sun, an employee said.
More people are staying at the nearby Woodlands Inn and Resort as a result of the casino, said general manager Rick Kornfeld. A shuttle is offered between the casino and the Woodlands during the week until 11 p.m. and on the weekends until 2 a.m.
Mohegan Sun plans to construct a 300-room hotel on its property, but Kornfeld said he believes the Woodlands still will benefit because there will be "overflow" and people will need hotel rooms. Kornfeld sees the casino as an attraction, not competition.
"We have a great rapport with them (Mohegan Sun). People from Connecticut stay here. They refer customers to our hotel. It's a partnership that will continue," Kornfeld said. "They have contractors who have stayed here as well as slot technicians, so it's a wonderful thing."
About 2 1/2 miles away, business also has increased at Old Country Buffet in the East End Centre in Wilkes-Barre Township thanks to additional traffic from Mohegan Sun, said kitchen manager Charles Franklin, who formerly was the food buffet manager at Mohegan Sun.
"It is driving more people to come here instead of Atlantic City especially since table games started," Franklin said. "People are staying here and eating here too."
Plains Township's growth
As the host community for Mohegan Sun, Plains Township has received about $2.3 million in gaming money for the last three years, said Ron Filippini, Plains Township Commissioners chairman.
Thanks to the additional funds, Plains Township has increased its police department from 14 officers to 19. East Mountain Drive was reconstructed at a cost of $1 million. About 40 other streets were resurfaced and storm sewers were repaired. About $100,000 was spent purchasing new equipment for four playgrounds and $250,000 on a new pumper fire truck. The township also was able to pay off some of its debt and it did not have to raise taxes, Filippini said.
The Commonwealth Financing Authority, created when table games were legalized, is scheduled to announce additional gaming money awards to local communities later this month.
Mount Airy increases traffic and tourism
Like Mohegan Sun, Mount Airy Casino Resort also has led to increased business and tourism since opening in 2007 and recently adding 72 table games to its more than 2,500 slot machines, 188 hotel rooms, five restaurants, a spa, salon, nightclub and an 18-hole golf course in Monroe County.
"We have definitely seen an increase in traffic," said Christina Rodis-Durst, director of public relations for the nearby Desaki hibachi/sushi restaurant and nightclub in Swiftwater. "I think we will continue to see that with the coming of table games and the changing demographic at Mount Airy, I think the table games are drawing more of a fun-loving crowd that may be staying for a longer duration as opposed to short bus trips."
In anticipation of the launch of table games at Mount Airy in July, Desaki has invested in about 10 billboards in Monroe County welcoming casino gamblers.
"What the casino does for all of the businesses in the area is it provides yet another anchor solidifying this area in Monroe County as a true entertainment destination," Rodis-Durst said.
Business also has increased at Comfort Inn & Suites in Mount Pocono, about four miles away from Mount Airy, said manager Anthony Regan. When Mount Airy fills its hotel rooms, the casino refers customers to stay at Comfort Inn, he said.
Schools in the Pocono Mountain School District abut Mount Airy and the increased traffic has not created any problems with transportation for schools, said Wendy Frable, director of public information for Pocono Mountain School District. Despite some initial concerns, the casino has been a "good neighbor" to the school district, she said.
Negative impact of casinos
While some businesses are benefitting from the increased traffic casinos are drawing, casinos are taking businesses away from others.
Jeff Stewart, owner of Alden Manor in Nanticoke, about 14 miles away from Mohegan Sun, said some customers are now eating more often at Mohegan Sun, where they could get free buffets when they earn enough points from the slot machines.
Jo Jo's Travelers in Taylor has seen a decrease bus riders to Atlantic City as a result of more people going to Pennsylvania casinos, said manager Gordon Grant. Jo Jo's Travelers now only offers bus trips to Atlantic City on specific dates. The bus company formerly offered trips to Atlantic City every day.
Casinos also have led to other social problems.
The helpline for the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania has received 12,575 calls about gambling problems so far this year and 2,295 were related to casinos. Of the calls, 642 have reported financial problems, 45 said they have filed for bankruptcy, 354 reported having credit problems, 608 have reported debts, 83 said they were divorced and 97 reported mental health problems.
Dianne M. Berlin of Casino Free PA, a statewide coalition of people and groups opposing casinos in Pennsylvania, said she believes casinos cause more harm than good.
"Gambling does not create new wealth. They continue to extract money from people without giving them any products or services in return like a regular business," Berlin said. "When you legalize something this harmful, the legislators knew this would create addicts."
Berlin said she believes casinos are leading to more bankruptcies and debts as more people deplete their earnings, savings, retirement funds and their children's college funds gambling. Offering free drinks is another way casinos bring in more money, she added.
"Alcohol most certainly affects judgment of people. Casinos operators know that," Berlin said. "They know their judgement is impaired and under those circumstances, the influence of alcohol keeps them gambling longer."
In Bucks County several instances were reported of parents leaving their children in cars while they gambled at Parx Casino in Bensalem.
At a news conference Thursday in Bensalem, state Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, and state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County, introduced legislation to crack down on adults who leave children unattended while gambling. They said their measure, with a possible prison term of 3 1/2 to seven years and a fine of up to $15,000, is needed to serve as a deterrent for gamblers who visit casinos and leave children behind in the parking lot.
Gambling into debt
A Swoyersville resident, who asked to remain anonymous, says she is still struggling with debt from gambling at Mohegan Sun.
"As soon as I got a paycheck, I was at the casino," she said. "Even if I didn't have a paycheck, I was putting it on a credit card."
She and a friend once went to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, and when no one else showed up, they went to Mohegan Sun instead.
"You think you're going to get ahead but you don't and you go the next day to try to make it up and you find yourself further in the hole," she said. "It's a cycle. It's just like being an alcoholic."
Her gambling problem led her to sign up for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board's self-exclusion program, which allows a person to request to be banned from all legalized gaming activities and to be prohibited from collecting winnings, recovering losses or accepting free gifts.
Two years ago, she violated the program and state police charged her with defiant trespass after she went to Mohegan Sun to play the slots. Now, she stays away from the casino.
"I would rather keep my husband and my kids," she said. "He would try to get me out of there. I was bouncing checks and I never did that before."
Statewide, a total of 1,639 people have signed up for a self-exclusion program banning themselves from gambling at Pennsylvania casinos, said Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
Casino officials say they take responsible gaming seriously. In addition to participating in the self-exclusion program, responsible gaming brochures are available throughout casinos. Tax dollars the casinos pay to the state helps fund compulsive gambling programs. Outside of tax dollars, casinos contribute to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania each year.
This year, operating casinos throughout the state are required by law to contribute $2 million or 0.002 multiplied by their total gross terminal revenue, whichever is greater, to the Compulsive and Problem Gambling Treatment Fund, said Holli Senior, spokeswoman for the state health department.
Gamblers who need help can call the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania's helpline at 1-800-GAMBLER.
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Copyright (c) 2010, The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
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