Going to the mall in Pennsylvania

Going to the mall in Pennsylvania

  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports
August 16, 2021 12:41 AM
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports

On August 12, Penn National opened Hollywood Casino York. It’s the second “mini” casino to open in Pennsylvania. The $120 million Hollywood Casino is in the York Galleria Mall in Springettsbury Township in York County, Pennsylvania, in a space formerly occupied by a Sears. The new casino was not exactly cheap; besides the $120 million, Penn paid $50 million for the license. Regardless of the cost, Penn officials and local dignitaries are very enthusiastic and hopeful.

The mall needs help. There are 40 vacant stores, with the others struggling to survive after the key tenants like Sears closed. A local official said, “There’s definitely not as many people at the mall than there were 10, 15 years ago. We’re hoping that [the casino] provides some more exposure to the mall and gets some more people out.” That is the challenge, to get people out and spending money. Hollywood Casino York is designed to do just that.

The new casino will have Barstool sports and a cashless option when playing slots or table games. It will be fresh and new and that will help draw some traffic from older casinos in the state. Long term, it may be a challenge to pay the 51 percent tax on slot revenue, compete with online gaming, and still make a profit. Gaming in Pennsylvania is booming, but most of the boom is online, not on the ground.

The Category 4 mini casinos in Pennsylvania are mainly going into empty spaces in existing malls. Empty malls are a plague on the land. Long before the pandemic, the economy was in the later stages of a radical shift in consumer behavior. The retail malls that began spreading across the country after the Second World War are a casualty of that shift. Shopping malls were a phenomenon of the times. They replaced the freestanding downtown in towns everywhere. In the post-war boom, every family had a car and many had two. The cars got people to and from work. They allowed people to buy houses in subdivisions in the suburbs. They also made it possible to drive to the mall to shop. But going to the mall was more than shopping; it was a major social component of suburban living.

People still live in housing developments, but they don’t go to the mall nearly as often. They shop elsewhere. The change was gradual. The first stage of the economic shift when big box stores like Walmart started to dominate the landscape; they took business away from the stores in malls. A consumer could go to Walmart and buy everything: food, clothes, electronics, tools, music, DVDs, medicine, furniture, garden supplies, auto supplies, books, and toys. It no longer was necessary to go to the mall and go from store to store when everything was all in one place. Malls struggled to survive and many of their tenants did not make it.

The second stage was the Amazon shift. When Amazon entered our lives, it was no longer necessary even to leave the house. We did not have to drive to a big box, much less one of those diminished struggling malls. Anything and everything could be ordered online and delivered to your doorstep.

One necessity that neither Walmart nor Amazon could fulfill was the social component. People used to go to the mall to stroll, watch other people, meet friends, and engage in casual conversation with strangers. Very few places are left where being with people in that sense is possible. Some cities, like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, have it; you can walk in the streets of those cities and indulge in being human. Another place where it’s still possible is in a casino.

If the mini casinos in Pennsylvania survive and prosper in the future, that is likely to be the reason. In Pennsylvania, you can play all of the casino games online, remotely from your home, or car, or sitting in a park. For purely gambling purposes, there is hardly any reason to go to a casino. But for other purposes, human purposes, you have to go where people are, like a casino in a Sears store in a mall in York County, Pennsylvania.

The question on the minds of everyone interested in the development of online gaming in Pennsylvania and elsewhere is, is that enough? Since it started in 2019, igaming has grown to be 25 percent of total gaming revenues. That percentage increases monthly. At least a portion of the online revenue is cannibalized from existing casinos. In time, that trend does not bode well for bricks and mortar, whether the full-blown or the mini version. Casinos could become like downtown business districts, catalogue sales, malls, and retail giants like Sears and Penny’s—in other words, relics of old business models. That could happen, except for one thing: our human character.

For some purposes we are not living beings, we are purchasing spending robots; whatever is the fastest and most convenient way to discharge that duty, the robot chooses it. However, that is not all that we are, we are also living, breathing, caring, sharing, and contact-needy beings. We need to be around others of our kind and if the place to do that is in a casino in a mall, so be it.