The mini casino proposed in Hempfield Township is being seen by some as a way to invigorate Westmoreland Mall while infusing millions of dollars and jobs into the local economy.
Officials from The Cordish Companies, the Baltimore- based group that is developing the $131 million casino, said Wednesday their plans call for 500 mostly full-time jobs with average annual wages of $43,000.
An additional 700 jobs would be related to developing and retrofitting the former Bon-Ton store where the mini casino — with about 750 slot machines and 30 table games — could be located. Westmoreland County would get a boost of about $123 million as a result of the construction, said Travis Lamb, chief financial officer.
The mall was appealing because it has existing infrastructure, is near highways and has plentiful parking.
“By adding the facility to the mall, we actually believe (it) will create a complete entertainment destination,” said Rob Norton, president. “The way malls are heading and physical shopping is heading in today’s environment with online proliferation, we are seeing that the move to more entertainment focus is actually helping the physical establishments and actually driving bodies back to the malls.”
Cordish officials and 15 business leaders, lawmakers and residents testified Wednesday during a two-hour public hearing before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. About 80 people attended the hearing at the Hempfield municipal building.
Another public meeting will be held next year in Harrisburg when board members will discuss the proposal and decide whether to approve the license.
Stadium Casino LLC, an affiliate of Cordish Companies, paid $40 million this year for the rights to build the small casino in the two-story, 100,000-square-foot space left vacant when Bon-Ton closed. Cordish officials said they anticipate a $152 million annual economic impact for the county once the casino begins operation. It could open around this time next year.
Norton said the majority of gaming will be located on the first floor, with dining and entertainment options on the second level. The casino will have its own security team and secure entrances into the mall from both levels, he said.
CBL Properties, which owns Westmoreland Mall, is looking for new uses for the space as the retail industry changes, said mall general manager Michael Egan.
“The proposed casino is consistent with the direction our industry is heading,” he said. “It is truly the ultimate combination of dining and entertainment. A casino will also complement Westmoreland Mall’s existing merchandising mix, driving new traffic and enhanced sales to these businesses.”
The proposed mini casino will be similar to Live! Casino in Maryland, which acts as an anchor at Arundel Mills mall and is managed by Lamb. Officials said they plan to tap into local residents and businesses when hiring for construction and casino operations.
“From a contracting standpoint, we’re looking to source as much of the construction activity and other vendors from the local market,” said Joe Weinberg, managing partner and chief executive officer of Resort Gaming. “Same thing on employment: From our workforce development, we’re looking to hire from the local community. It’s good for our business, and it’s good for the local community.”
By the third year of operation, Cordish expects Hempfield and Westmoreland County would each receive $1.8 million annually from gaming taxes.
Of the 10 residents who addressed the board, seven were opposed to the plans and two were in favor. A few of those opposed live in the Murrysville area. The board received six written comments, two opposed and four in favor.
Those in opposition brought up the possibility of gambling addictions, crime and drugs that could come with the casino, and others asked the board to look at other options or let voters decide by referendum.
Gregg Neavin, who said he was representing grassroots organization Coalition for a Better Westmoreland, called it “unethical” to take tax money from someone who has an addiction and questioned what “sustainable life skills” will be taught to new employees.
“Westmoreland Mall — the casino won’t save it. It will kill it, and then like a good parasite, absorb it,” Neavin testified. “How long before Sears closes and the casino offers to do us a favor and take that empty space?”
The coalition was registered with the state on Oct. 31 and is based out of a Downtown Pittsburgh office, according to filings.
Township Supervisor Doug Weimer asked the board to share information it collects while making a decision. He is in favor the casino but concerned about how increased vehicle and foot traffic will affect public safety and whether the township might be forced to spend money if state police are not able to handle an increased call volume.
Supervisors Rob Ritson and George Reese were pleased to see the dollar figures the township would get annually if the casino is approved. Ritson said even neighboring municipalities, such as Greensburg and Unity, could see an economic impact from the project.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, email@example.com or via Twitter @byrenatta.