It was not as if the odds were totally against Greenwood Gaming winning over some public support for a Parx Casino in South Middleton Township.
Mark Stewart, attorney for Greenwood, asked the supervisors Thursday for an opportunity to prove what he described as a reputation of “outstanding success as a business, employer and community partner.”
Stewart said an opt-in on a mini-casino near Exit 44 of I-81 could bring hundreds of good paying jobs, a “dedicated” $1 million revenue stream and an agreement to provide $250,000 in annual funding to South Middleton School District or any other entity deemed a priority.
About half of the two dozen speakers Thursday supported a mini-casino concept on the Walnut Bottom Road and wanted the supervisors to cash in on money that could not only support growth but help the school district and emergency services offset budget challenges.
An equally vocal group of local residents were against a mini-casino, saying the social ills created by an opt-in would outweigh the financial gains promised by the developer.
Three of the five supervisors attended the meeting Thursday night where they took public input for close to two hours. In the end, Tom Faley, Duff Manweiler and Rick Reighard all opposed an opt-in, which would have been a change in position from this past winter when the supervisors opted-out.
A few residents expressed confusion over why the supervisors seem to be revisiting an issue that they had resolved months before.
The supervisors opted out last winter because the township had no interest from a casino, Reighard said. He said that when Greenwood made the inquiry, township officials followed the past practice of allowing a developer to make a presentation before gathering public input.
“We take the time to make it fair for everybody,” Reighard said. After taking public input at a late July meeting, a 3-2 majority of the supervisors agreed to investigate the matter further by scheduling a second public hearing this Thursday.
While the supervisors sat and listened, residents scolded the board, implied its members didn’t know what they were doing and even accused supervisors of obtaining personal gain from the casino developer, Reighard said. “We had fingers pointed at us. We were shamed by those who were likely attending a meeting for the first time and did not understand what the operation of the board involved.
“We were elected and sworn under oath to make decisions based on the health, safety and welfare of the township,” Reighard said. Those decisions are not to be influenced by the weight of criticism, personal beliefs or how the outcome may impact neighboring municipalities, he said.
While the money offered may prove to be an economic benefit, the statistics are mixed on the negative assumptions people make about casinos, Reighard said. South Middleton officials have heard from host communities that have not seen significant problems, he said.
“The end result will likely be not to yield to dire consequences or to totally rosy results that are predicted,” Reighard said.
He noted the township and school district share the same borders, which is a rarity in Pennsylvania. But while it is thought the school district could be a big beneficiary of casino money, there has been no input by school board members or administrators at township meetings.
“This lack of action has weighed heavily on my feelings in this matter,” Reighard said. “I can only assume that the school board and the administration have worked out a solution to the problem and it may involve a significant tax increase. I guess what I am hearing is maybe that is preferable to having a casino.”
Faley said he felt the opt-out decision made this past winter was clear: A casino does not fit the character of the township. Faley said putting another 500 cars onto Walnut Bottom Road at the height of the noon or evening rush hours would create too much of a traffic challenge.
“I have given it a lot of thought,” Faley said. “My personal feeling is we have to leave this issue alone.” Manweiler also said he was not interested in an opt-in and he reminded the audience Thursday that Bryan Gembusia was also opposed to locating a casino in the township. Gembusia was away on vacation.
Township Manager Cory Adams read a written statement from township supervisor and emergency services administrator Ron Hamilton who was absent Thursday due to a personal issue.
In his statement, Hamilton said the money promised by the casino developer could help fund the school district and local emergency services as well as avert the need for higher taxes.
Since the July meeting, Hamilton has spoken with many township residents, 72 percent of which voiced support for a casino. His statement did not include a number.
“I heard from people at the last meeting and it was generally an unfavorable response,” Hamilton wrote. “I took that into account and checked for myself.” That research included seeking input from officials of municipalities that host casinos. Based on that, Hamilton supported an opt-in for a casino. He was the only supervisor to do so.
Mark Stewart, attorney for Greenwood, said his client respects the township’s decision and will consider other options such as Shippensburg Township in Cumberland County and Greene Township in Franklin County.
Greenwood, which does business as Parx Casino, has applied for a two-month extension on its Aug. 23 deadline to submit an application to the state that designates a location for its mini-casino, Stewart said. The state will consider that extension on Aug. 14. It would extend the deadline to Oct. 23.
“Nobody has opposed it, but no decision has been made as yet,” Stewart said. “It is expected to be granted.”
While most of the speakers at the July meeting opposed a mini-casino, there was an even split among the speakers Thursday.
“We respect the citizens’ views,” Stewart said following the public hearing. “The speakers were very eloquent and gave very heartfelt thoughts. Obviously, we disagree with those who express certain sentiments about our business, how we operate and what our priorities are. We stand by our position that we would have been a great opportunity for the township and would have been a great community partner.”
Local resident Jason Gottesman supported a casino because it would create jobs and provide revenue to offset the growth coming into South Middleton. He asked the supervisors to look beyond the downside to what he considered “a very large upside” and “what this money could mean for us.”
Jim Barnes, a resident of the village of Boiling Springs for about 40 years, said revenue from the casino could help ease the upward pressure of school taxes on elderly property owners, allowing them to afford maintenance to prevent blight. It could also enable senior citizens to stay in their properties longer, reducing the risk of a takeover by absentee landlords, which threatens property values, Barnes said.
“These people are World War II and Korean War veterans who have worked hard all their lives and barely have enough money to handle the upkeep on their property,” Barnes said. He said the proposed casino location along Walnut Bottom Road near the borough means that Carlisle would get the problems while South Middleton would get the revenue.
Cesar Lara grew up in Ecuador before moving to the U.S. 23 years ago. He told supervisors a casino in his hometown enabled relatives to gamble all the time, resulting in a failed marriage and other hardships. Lara said there were five murders involving victims who owed money to the casino or to other gamblers.
The $50 million in annual income a Parx Casino could generate would be taken away from families, children and marriages that have little or no resources to spare, Lara said. He said even the smallest increase in gambling addiction is one person too many.
“Having a casino in this township will destroy it,” Lara said. “What you have here is a gem. What you all have here — this township, this country — is gold.”
Kirk Stoner, county planner and township resident, used a similar analogy to describe his opposition to the casino. “South Middleton Township is the gem in the jewel of Cumberland County,” he said. “Why is that? What is special about it? We have a plan. We follow that plan.
“Where in our plan is a plan to attract gaming?” Stoner said. “I don’t see it. Where is the discussion with the planning commission about gaming in South Middleton? I have not seen it. We don’t need the subsidy from the casino.”
Stoner called casinos “a desperate last resort by municipalities that have nothing else to hold onto.” He said the property tax relief that was promised at the state level never materialized in the household income of taxpayers. “The promises of money are shortcoming and short-sighted,” he said.
Finally, Stoner challenged the supervisors to preserve what he sees as a legacy of effective management. “Keep your long-term vision,” he said. “Follow the plan … not follow the dollars.”