HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania will try anew in September to award more licenses for mini-casinos, part of an aggressive gambling expansion authorized in 2017 by a cash-hungry state government.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board on Wednesday approved a motion to restart the auctions on Sept. 4, under orders by a provision slipped into a budget-related bill signed by Gov. Tom Wolf late last month.
The original law authorized 10 mini-casino licenses that allow the holder to operate up to 750 slot machines and up to 40 table games. The first five auctions raised $127 million, and the first mini-casino, Hollywood Casino Morgantown operated by Penn National Gaming, is expected to open next year close to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, near the city of Reading.
The gaming board stopped the auctions in April last year after it received no bids for a sixth license.
Minimum bids are $7.5 million and the auctions are limited to owners of Pennsylvania’s 12 larger casinos and a 13th that is under construction in Philadelphia.
House Gaming Oversight Committee Chairman Jim Marshall, R-Beaver, said he had not heard directly from Pennsylvania’s casino owners that they have an appetite to snap up more licenses. Rather, he said, lawmakers wanted to test what kind of appetite is out there and it’s possible that a casino would bite on a license somewhere in central Pennsylvania.
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“It’s very limited,” Marshall said. “It’s for a limited time, it’s a one-time offer. If there’s speculation that there’s interest, we are going to find out if it’s real and if not, that auction period will close and that’ll probably be it.”
The gaming board plans to hold auctions every two weeks starting Sept. 4 as long as there are bidders, spokesman Doug Harbach said.
The auctions must end Dec. 31, under the new law.
Lawmakers made one key change from the 2017 law: no new mini-casino can be within 40 miles of any of the 18 existing or prospective casino locations in Pennsylvania. The 2017 law had prescribed a 25-mile radius, and the broader ban leaves less territory in Pennsylvania for yet another casino.
The entire Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas are off-limits, as are all of the biggest cities in eastern Pennsylvania and much of the region around Harrisburg and York. A special provision of the 2017 law bars any new competition in northeastern Pennsylvania to Mount Airy Casino Resort, founded by billionaire Louis DeNaples.
Pennsylvania is already the nation’s No. 2 state for commercial casino revenue, behind Nevada, at $3.2 billion last year, according to American Gaming Association figures. It is No. 1 in tax revenue from casino gambling at nearly $1.5 billion, and the 2017 law also authorized online casino gambling and sports betting through the state’s casinos.