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Mini-Casino Headed For Lawrence County, Along Ohio Border

Julie Jacobson
The owners of the new site for a mini-casino in Lawrence County say the area has "a lot of people, a lot of opportunity."

The family that owns northeastern Pennsylvania's Mount Airy Casino Resort won the rights Thursday to build a mini-casino on the opposite side of the state along the Ohio border, an area that has tried for years to land a casino project.

Mount Airy, owned by the family of billionaire founder Louis DeNaples, submitted a winning bid Thursday of nearly $21.2 million — $21,188,888.88 to be exact.

Vincent Jordan, Mount Airy's vice president of marketing and gaming operations, said executives there had not settled on a final location in Lawrence County, but called the area home to "a lot of people, a lot of opportunity."

It was the best of three offers in the third mini-casino auction to date, besting bids by Parx Casino in suburban Philadelphia — controlled by London-based businessman Watche Manoukian — and the Las Vegas Sands-owned Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem.

In a search for cash to patch up the state's threadbare finances, lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf last year approved a massive expansion of casino gambling that includes auctioning the rights to 10 new mini-casinos.

Thursday's winning bid raises the total from the first three auctions to $112 million. Pennsylvania is the nation's No. 2 state for commercial casino gross revenues, second to Nevada, and is already No. 1 in tax revenue from gambling — $1.4 billion in the most recent fiscal year.

Mini-casinos can operate up to 750 slot machines and license holders can pay $2.5 million more to operate 30 table games. Bids are limited for now to the owners of Pennsylvania's 11 casino licenses that allow holders to operate up to 5,000 slot machines and 250 table games.

Lawrence County officials had actively sought a suitor for a mini-casino after several investors tried unsuccessfully for years to build a casino and racetrack there. Area officials hope the casino will provide an economic boost.

"Today's a good day for our community," Lawrence County Commissioner Dan Vogler said.

Mount Airy did not specify a specific site where it plans to build and gave no details about what kind of establishment it plans to build. But Vogler said he expected a Lawrence County casino could draw from five surrounding counties — three in Pennsylvania and two in Ohio — that, with Lawrence County, have a combined population of 1 million.

The county is bisected by Interstate 376, and the nearest casino is the slot machine-only Hollywood Gaming Mahoning Valley in Ohio, about a half-hour away.

More than an hour to the south is Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and more than an hour to the north is Presque Isle Downs Casino in suburban Erie.

Pennsylvania-based Penn National Gaming won the first mini-casino license last month, bidding $50.1 million to put one in an area of south-central Pennsylvania that includes the city of York. A Baltimore-based developer that's building a casino in Philadelphia's stadium district won the second license, bidding $40.1 million to put up a casino in Westmoreland County, outside Pittsburgh.

Mount Airy's bid comes after critics say state lawmakers gave it two sweetheart provisions in the gambling bill.

One provision protects much of northeastern Pennsylvania from the construction of a mini-casino that could compete with Mount Airy Casino for gamblers. Another provision effectively forces higher-earning casinos to bail out lower-performing casinos, potentially delivering a $4 million payment to Mount Airy and Presque Isle.

Rival casinos have filed legal challenges that threaten both provisions.

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