Last week Gov. Tom Wolf signed new legislation that allows a massive expansion of where, when, and how gambling can occur in the state. PA now becomes the 4th state legalizing online gambling, joining fellow tri-staters NJ and DE, and gambling mecca Nevada. Casinos are also now permitted to offer "interactive gambling parlors" in airports (including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia International), qualifying truck stops can operate up to five video gaming terminals (VGMs or EGMs depending on your vernacular), and the 10 larger casinos can bid on satellite casino licenses allowing up to 750 slot machines and 30 table game so long as the facility isn't within 25 miles of another casino.
Very briefly, this bill was passed in part as a means to bridge the PA state budget shortfall while avoiding an increase in taxes. As a planner who often works in disadvantaged communities, the negative impacts on gambling in those communities that need the most resources often far outweigh the benefits of a few new jobs or economic investment. However, the main focus of this post won't be on the political or socio-economic concerns, but rather the more qualitative, emotional ones.
Philadelphia has nothing to worry about from this legislation in terms of allowing new casinos. The entire city is less than 25 miles long, and with SugarHouse and the new casino being built down in South Philly, this law wouldn't apply locally. However, of more local concern is the new laws opening up airport and truck stop gambling.
For truck stops to qualify, the truck stop must be equipped with diesel islands; have sold an average of 50,000 gallons of diesel each month for the last year; have at least 20 parking spaces for trucks; have a convenience store; and be on an at least 3-acre parcel of land not owned by the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The truck stop must also be licensed as a lottery sales agent. The airport expansion is a bit trickier - the only requirement appears to be that it has to get approved by the Airport and only be available to ticketed passengers, with no stipulations on size or numbers of games (I could have misread though, please correct me someone if I am wrong!)
This expansion of gambling is sad because once the revenue hits, government isn't going to give it up quite quickly, and that's a shame, because I've seen first hand what it's like with expanded retail gambling operations. In Australia, there are what's called "Pokies" Bars, which are bars that have a few OTB stations and/or EGMs. There aren't many, at most 3-4 stations - but the atmosphere they create can be depressing in the area of the bar they are situated in. These sections are, regardless of location (affluent or not) mostly filled with older men, gambling away their pension money while sipping beers remembering days long gone. The rest of the bar can often be a pleasant place to be - but there's always a sort of dead zone around the pokies, and depending on the layout - that can extend quite far onto the floor.
Now, not many people wax poetic about truck stops any more, fewer are fond of airports, but part of the enjoyment of going to a new place is seeing what local retail options are available. Airports are many people's first impressions of a city and it's culture, truck stops often serve as that for those passing through. In Vegas, slots at the airport makes sense - it's economy is based around gambling. Philadelphia/Pittsburgh? For better or worse, the Philly brand is Ben Franklin, Independence Hall, Rocky and Cheesesteaks. Pittsburgh is steel, grit, and Andy Warhol - so far as I understand it. Where does gambling fit in with those narratives?
Anyone who's flown into McCarran airport will tell you that it's cool to see slot machines in the terminal - at first. But then, there's a sadness that certainly I get watching people pour money into a machine before they leave. For me, if the first thing I see when I get off an airplane is slot machines, my first feeling is going to be one of sadness, not excitement. To me, it's a sign of a place desperate for revenue. That's not a great way to welcome visitors, no matter how nice looking those parlors may be. Lets not begin to compound the emotional risks of having delayed travelers losing money gambling and then potentially having more bad news. Airports aren't traditionally the home to calm, patient, rational behavior to begin with. And no offense to truck drivers, but adding a compulsive, depression inducing element into their work day just isn't a great idea to me.
I think we as a society lose something when what's unique about a place is replaced by something generic. Sure, there'll always be a soft pretzel store in the airport, but there's only so much space available in an airport - and if EGMs turn out to be more profitable per sqft than a kiosk, you can bet that there will be people trying to expand the footprint of those parlors. Retail will never go away, people need places to eat, sit, shop - but the quality and variety of those locations will probably decline.
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