The meeting room was bursting at the seams for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board public hearing to discuss National Penn Gaming’s application to build a mini-casino near Morgantown.
A crowd of more than 250 gathered at the Caernarvon Township Building with many in the standing-room-only audience lining the walls. A strict rule was stated that testimonies of 45 preregistered people would be limited to five minutes each, no exceptions.
The March 4 hearing opened with a slideshow by Wyomissing-based Penn National Gaming Inc. on plans to build the Hollywood Casino.
The slideshow touted the company's charitable giving, feasible traffic patterns near the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Route 10 and Interstate 176, and stated that the casino will pump $94.3 million into the local economy, create 311 permanent jobs with workers earning $9.6 million.
The targeted opening date is fall/ winter of 2020.
Once the floor was open for public comments, 45 registered speakers got the opportunity to offer their views, some passionately opposing the casino while others showed their support.
“Speaking for myself, I am pro-casino,” said Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt. “We struggle with tax rates. Over the years money has declined. Hotels and tourism is declining. The average tourist spends $250-$400. I support this.”
Allen Styer, chairman of the Caernarvon Township Board of Supervisors, said, “The lot they chose is the lot we envisioned, majority of traffic will not go through the town. We will hire more police, expand tax basis, hopefully instead of a drive through community we will become a destination place.”
Dwight Frizen, president of Elverson Borough Council, said the casino will impact a radius of 25 miles into Lancaster and Chester counties.
“It will add an expense to Elverson. We will need safety, signage and radar. We do not have our own police force; we are covered by State Police. I request expenses for increased civic burden. Safety is most important.”
Samuel E. Rohrer, president of the Pennsylvania Pastors and American Pastors Network, offered comments as a 40-year resident who lives a few miles from the proposed casino site.
“I have six children, 14 grandchildren within a 20-mile radius. I speak also as an 18-year former Pennsylvania state representative with full confidence I accurately represent the citizens of southern Berks County,” said Rohrer. “I speak on behalf of the pastors and moral leaders to stem the slide into sex abuse, drugs, alcohol, and gambling addiction with families falling apart. To the supervisors, why consider the unique nature of this community and culture who voted for you to be of such little value to gain a few dollars that you know will bring negative impact to this community?”
Lifelong resident Ryan C. Helms, representing the Reading and Vicinity Building and Construction Trades, spoke of the benefits for the middle class: “This county has degraded. Jobs are gone with no sustaining family wages. This project might bring that back. Reading is noted as one of the poorest cities in the nation. We need projects like this.”
Others said a casino will destroy the rural nature of southern Berks County.
Jacob E. Kurtz, native resident and pastor, said, “My grandparents once owned this whole valley. They were good people. The turnpike ruined the whole thing. We have a good town, good people, good schools. Be careful about what you believe. We have a spike in crime and drugs with the pipeline. When my grandmother sold the land, she said no alcohol. Las Vegas is the suicide capital of the nation. We have a population of 384 people; 2,473 people come here to church. We are the backbone of this area.”
Rev. Colleen Painter, Elverson United Methodist Church, said, “We are one community in the whole area. Most voted to opt out. UM stands against gambling. We recognize the moral argument has been lost in PA. In Las Vegas ‘what happens here stays here.” Here everybody knows your name. Barely outside of a 25-mile radius of KOP, we offer a scenic drive, farms, markets, country. UM votes to deny the application.”
Resident Michelle Raymond, community activist and social media administrator for “In Twin Valley” Facebook page with 2,500 followers, said she attends all township meetings.
“I am a 20-year resident with three children. I come out in support of the casino since I am an advocate for small business and our area is slowly diminishing in business income. We need to bring different things, welcome new neighbors, increase our tax base, and encourage new business.”
Resident Larry D. Clauser, quoting scripture, offered a warning, “What profits a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? I knew a man. Gambling broke up his family. He took his own life. You will have blood on your hands. Deny the casino!”
There was a visible absence of Amish and Mennonite, who are known in this community for their peaceable farming presence.
The public hearing was held for three hours. The meeting was streamed live video on the Game Commission website.
Hollywood Casino representatives Dan Ihm, vice president and general manager; Chris Rogers, senior vice president of corporate development; John V. Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations; and Ballard Spahr lawfirm's Adrian R. King Jr. explained that a total of 275 construction jobs will generate $1.6 million in personal income.
The 85,000-square-foot casino project will include 1,000 parking spaces; 70 percent of the floor being penny slots with the rest being blackjack, craps, carnival games, waging and sports betting, as well as a 200-seat restaurant, lounge and a "grab-and-go" food hall.
There will be 250 full-time workers, receiving six-week training for gaming tables, paid $20 and over per hour with benefits. The casino features state-of-the-art ID and security monitored. There will be public safety meetings with Twin Valley Fire Department, Caernarvon Township officials, Pennsylvania State Police and local hotels and the community.
Prior to the hearing, two petitions circulated in the community, one opposing the casino with more than 1,029 signatures and the other in support of the casino with 156 signatures.
A separate public hearing will be held at a later date in Harrisburg.
Penn National will offer oral arguments and Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board members can ask additional questions prior to voting on whether to authorize a license for the facility.