Reed Pederson: With mini casino, some will win, some will lose
Recently, our state legislators bestowed upon us more personal freedom. We can buy consumer-grade fireworks without driving to another state, and we'll be able to gamble without driving to another county.
With an estimated $75 billion in unfunded public pension liabilities, expect more freedom. Look for legalization of recreational marijuana and perhaps, far in the future, prostitution (don't bet against it). And sometime after that, we might even get privatization of the state alcohol system, with convenience like in other states.
It isn't about freedom, of course; it's about feeding the Harrisburg spending machine. The upcoming Westmoreland County mini casino can have up to 40 table games and 750 slot machines. The winning bid for the license was just over $40 million. With that kind of money on the line, the casino will be a major operation, likely to have a major effect on the county's character. The question is whether the good will outweigh the bad.
If you believe the hype, everyone will be a winner. But gambling has always been about winners and losers. The only guaranteed winners are state and local governments — they know a jackpot when they see one. The state rakes in about $3.8 million per day in slot-machine and table-game taxes, regardless of whether casinos are profitable — $1.4 billion in 2015-16.
When legalized gambling was passed, we were told that money would lower property taxes. It sounded like a winning proposition, but my property taxes have not gone down. And, money being fungible, any increase in tax revenues allows our legislators to spend more on their pet constituencies and make promises that add to debt. There is no reason to believe tax revenue from the Westmoreland casino will be spent differently.
We are promised new, high-paying jobs. Let's hope so. But the casino, a major new entertainment option, will compete with the Palace and Lamp theaters, playhouses such as Stage Right and Apple Hill, movie theaters, restaurants and bars. All stand to lose business. The casino will undoubtedly have a variety of dining options that will compete with downtown Greensburg establishments and any restaurant within reasonable driving distance of the casino. Jobs will be lost when bars, theaters and restaurants that can't compete close.
The developer is considering building an entertainment district around the casino. As with malls that siphoned business away from downtown Greensburg and Latrobe, our downtowns may lose customers and relevance to the casino's “new downtown.”
The gamblers will be sure losers, except for an incredibly lucky handful. And with this casino nearby, how many county residents will become addicted to gambling?
The only sure bet is that our leaders will have more money to spend — and not necessarily to our direct benefit.
As the saying goes, “The house” — the state — “always wins.” Some Westmoreland businesses and residents will win; some will lose. But at least we'll have the freedom to do so conveniently.
Reed Pederson, a member of the Westmoreland Tribune-Review Editorial Board, is co-owner of MB Bride of Greensburg.