In Pennsylvania, casino seen as a lifesaver
Michelle Barone, 45, of Pittsburgh, (center) and her mother, Joan Barone, 64, also from Pittsburgh, play on the slot machines at the Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington, Penn. on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. "If it's real ugly, real quick, we're not here long, but usually we're here three days a week for about eight hours at a time," said Michelle Barone who often sleeps on a couch in the casino. Joan Barone added, "Instead of going to a movie or dinner, we come here to relax - when you're in front of the machine, that's all you have to think about."
Amanda Steen for the Concord Monitor
From left, Lawton Hallam and Sandra J. Hallam eat dinner and watch television on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 in a section of the Meadows Casino reserved for members only.
Amanda Steen for the Concord Monitor
A man walks through rows of slot machines at the Meadow's Racetrack and Casino slot; Tuesday May 14, 2013.
Amanda Steen for the Concord Monitor
A dealer plays a hand of Mini Baccarat with a customer at the Meadow's Racetrack and Casino slot on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 in Washington, Penn.
Amanda Steen for the Concord Monitor
Patrick Brailey, of Imperial, pictured here on Tues. May 14, has operated table games at the Meadows Racetrack and Casino since they opened in July, 2010. A dealer plays a hand of Mini Baccarat with a customer at the Meadow's Racetrack and Casino slot on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 in Washington, Penn.
Amanda Steen for the Concord Monitor
Michelle Barone, 45, makes a living selling medical devices. For fun, she takes her paycheck to the Meadows casino in North Strabane, Pa., and gambles three times a week, eight hours a visit.
Barone, dressed better than anyone else on the Meadows floor last Tuesday, figures she spends $700 a night. Her parents, who join her, spend that or more.
“A family that gambles together stays together,” joked Joan Barone, 64, taking a break from playing a Mega Wild slot machine.
The Barones are due a thank-you note from North Strabane, the local county and the state. Ditto for the other Meadows customers who wagered $3.1 billion there last year on slots alone.
Those wagers have reduced property taxes and allowed North Strabane and the local county to turn its wish lists into to-do lists. That’s because for every dollar the Meadows keeps after paying slot winners, 55 cents is taken in taxes.
So, it’s no wonder that Frank Siffrinn, North Strabane’s township manager, is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Meadows.
When Siffrinn started as manager in 1992, he struggled to balance the budget. Now, by law, the casino must cover half the township’s annual budget, or $10 million, whichever is less. Currently, that means the town gets a $2.5 million windfall.
Siffrinn likes to show rather than tell visitors what that $2.5 million a year has meant for his 14,000-person community 30 minutes west of Pittsburgh.
Siffrinn drives out-of-towners to the top of a hill that used to have one baseball field surrounded by a massive swath of trees and meadows.
Today, there are four new baseball fields; another field with bleachers that’s used for football, soccer and lacrosse; bathrooms; a concession stand; and about 10 covered pavilions with picnic tables and grills. One pavilion even has a full kitchen attached.
There’s parking for 550 cars – and it’s hard to find a spot on weekends. Locals use the park but so do regional sports tournaments, which pump money into the local hotels and restaurants, Siffrinn said.
The project’s price tag? $8.1 million, more than twice the town’s annual budget. The township has undertaken other investments with its casino money: It recently built a $2.1 million fire station with new trucks on land donated by the casino. The township has also been able to fully fund its employees’ pension plans and double the amount of money it puts into road repairs.
“None of this would have been possible without the casino,” Siffrinn said last week. “We could never have done it without that. We couldn’t even dream about it.”
Bill Wortman and Bill Paulos, who opened the Meadows Racetrack & Casino in 2007, want to duplicate the Pennsylvania operation in Salem, at the once-vibrant but now-dying Rockingham Park.
The two casinos would be similar, according to recently unveiled plans for the Rockingham Park development.
Slot machines and table games would share space with a restaurant, bar and entertainment area. And like the Meadows, the Rockingham Park casino would have a muted feel, not the flash and glitz of a Las Vegas casino.
The amount wagered here would be similar, too, according to estimates from the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.
The center has predicted $3.1 billion a year in wagers if the Salem casino has 3,000 slot machines, or $5.2 billion a year if Rockingham Park has all 5,000 slots allowed by the legislation. The tax benefits to the local and state government would be less, however, under the current bill.
Rather than the 55 percent levied on gross slot revenue in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire’s bill proposes a 30 percent tax rate, and amendments under consideration would reduce it further.
The House is scheduled to debate and vote on the Senate’s casino bill Wednesday. Expanded gambling has never passed the House, but the support of Gov. Maggie Hassan and the threat of new casinos in Massachusetts has made this year’s House vote especially hard to predict.
A joint House committee that studied the casino bill for three weeks voted 23-22 last week to recommend it be killed. Even casino supporters called that a victory, though, because of the razor-thin margin.
As written, the casino bill would award a single license for anywhere in the state by competitive bid. So far, the developers behind the Meadows are the only ones who’ve gone public with their plans for a casino. But they expect competition from inside the state and out.
Locals: no downside
Surprisingly, Pennsylvania officials in Washington County, where the Meadows sits, have been following the New Hampshire casino bill’s slog through the House closely. Some knew the details about the debate better than locals here.
Several asked a Granite State visitor last week about news coverage of opposition to the bill. They knew the joint House committee vote was pending and likely to be an indicator of what’s to come. Some had even traveled to New Hampshire to lobby lawmakers.
To a person, those interviewed last week said they were baffled by New Hampshire’s hesitation or opposition to a casino. And they didn’t hide it.
“Everything I heard when I was up there were total fallacies,” said Jeff Kotula, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. The Meadows is one of the Chamber’s 1,100 members.
“We have seen no increase in crime,” Kotula said. “No other businesses are losing out. Those concerns have just not materialized. I think it’s the fear of the unknown.”
Kotula visited Rockingham Park during his visit to New Hampshire and said he was “shocked” by the extent of charitable gambling already happening here. Pennsylvania had a lottery but no table games when it legalized gambling. The state now has 11 casinos with another under construction.
“You already have gambling,” Kotula said. “If I were in New Hampshire, I would be more concerned about losing people who are coming to visit or vacation to Massachusetts and Maine (which has two casinos) because they offer a different reason to go there instead.”
Kotula visits the Meadows regularly, he said, either to play table games, meet friends in the cigar bar or take his wife to the high-end steakhouse on the casino’s top floor. He also takes his two young daughters there to bowl in the 24-lane bowling alley.
“A casino wants to be a good neighbor,” said Kotula. “My question to your readers is, do you really want people to take dollars out of your state?”
Siffrinn took the predictions of increased crime seriously when he started preparing for the opening of the Meadows casino. Like officials here, he took his cues from other communities that had experience with casinos.
The township added four police officers to complement the state police unit at the casino and the casino’s own security force.
“We anticipated a significant increase in crime at all levels, from hit-and-runs to white collar crime to purse snatchings,” Siffrinn said. “What started out as all these horror stories . . . never materialized.”
Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi made the trip to New Hampshire two weeks ago to promote the economic benefits of a casino to lawmakers. Back in his office in Washington, Pa., last week, Maggi talked about the fears of increased crime and problem gambling associated with casinos.
In the first three months of this year, lottery gambling prompted the most phone calls to the Council on Compulsive Gambling in Pennsylvania, according to its records. There were 1,158 calls related to lottery gambling and 1,131 prompted by casino gambling.
Most callers cited slot machines as their problem and most had gotten the helpline’s phone number from a casino, according to the council’s records.
Maggi knows the arguments well.
He spent his career as a state trooper and county sheriff. And as a boy growing up in in Pennsylvania, Maggi’s dad got into debt betting on sports, deeply enough that their electricity was shut off and bookies called the house with harsh messages.
Like Siffrinn, Maggi said there has been no increase in crime as a result of the casino. The state troopers stationed at the casino say there’s so little to do it’s like being retired.
“I don’t gamble myself, but it’s going to happen whether it’s legal or not,” Maggi said. “And I think the state and the people should benefit rather than the underworld or organized crime. Let the people benefit from it.”
And the benefits have been many, Maggi said. Since 2008, Washington County has received $53.3 million in casino taxes and invested in 197 projects ranging from extending sewer and water lines in the rural county and building business parks to helping nonprofits refurbish historic sites.
What’s more, the county has used that $53 million to secure an additional $121 million in federal grants and matching funds.
Those dollars have changed Washington County’s future, Maggi said. “We did absolutely nothing in economic development before this other than what money we got from the state and federal government, which was limited,” Maggi said. “No dollars came from the county for public sewage or public water. We gave it lip service. Maybe we got $100,000 from the feds and we were excited about that. But that couldn’t even do a traffic study for a project. I look back and I thought we were making progress, but we were just taking baby steps.”
As one of its first initiatives, the county used $1 million to build a 256-acre business park that has lighting, sewer, water and other utilities a company will need. Anyone who locates there before 2015 won’t pay state or local taxes for 10 years.
Maggi said the investment has attracted businesses.
On a smaller scale, the county used $250,000 in casino revenue to start a vocational school where students could get commercial driver’s licenses. The first class graduated 102 people, almost all of whom found good-paying jobs, Maggi said.
The competition for those casino dollars is fierce. William McGowen, executive director of the Redevelopment Authority of Washington County, has had a lot more to work with since the casino opened.
Since 2008, the county has received 519 requests worth $261 million for the $53 million it has dispersed. To be considered, a project must create jobs, improve civic or cultural resources, spur economic development or improve utility services such as water and sewer.
“People ask me, ‘What’s the downside? What’s the crime? What problems have (the casinos) caused you?’ ” McGowen said. The answer is, ‘You tell me.’ Especially when you have $53 million you never had before and you can really do something with it.”
Other projects have included the creation of another business park; new playgrounds across the county; an open-air market in one community; bridge repairs; new sports fields; and expansion of a popular community art school.
“All these projects would not be able to be done if you didn’t have” the casino, McGowen said.
‘This is my hobby’
Economic development is not what brings people to the Meadows, however. Visitors interviewed last week, all of whom described themselves as regulars, said they had come for entertainment.
“We used to go dancing, but we don’t do that anymore,” said Matt Policz, 75, who was at the Meadows with his wife. “I don’t have other hobbies, this is my hobby.”
The couple started visiting the Meadows when it first opened in a temporary tent. They come once or twice a week, and he sets himself a $100 limit. The couple made their living running a home for the elderly.
“I’ve got our retirement all set,” Policz said. “This isn’t a threat to that.”
Mary Oblock, 84, likes to play the slots – alone – and figures she’s at the casino about three times a week. She likes the staff and the cleanliness of the casino floor, she said.
It’s a 20-minute drive from her house to the Meadows, and a usual visit lasts three to four hours. She’s older than the casino’s average visitor, who is 60, according to general manager Sean Sullivan. But she thinks it’s a good place for her to spend her time.
“This keeps the old ladies off the street,” Oblock said last week. She was up on the Triple Double Diamond slot machine. “How much do I gamble? I don’t even keep track. If I did, I’d be sick.”
With a laugh, Oblock was back to her slot, betting pennies at a time.
Sandra and Lawton Hallam used to drive across the border to visit the casino in Wheeling, W.V. The Meadows is much closer – only 15 minutes from their home – and Sandra Hallam got her player’s card before the Meadows opened.
The couple plays frequently enough that they have access to a VIP room. They were enjoying dessert last Monday. The Hallams come most often to gamble, but they also come for shows, they said.
Sandra Hallam didn’t want to say how much she spends during their weekly or twice-weekly visits. “I’ve got a husband sitting right here,” she said.
Lawton Hallam answered for her: “Too much,” he said.
It sounded like a friendly joke they had shared before, and neither of them looked unhappy to be there.
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)