MORGANTOWN, Pa. — Few people here grasped the monumental implications of Pennsylvania’s expanded gaming law until Penn National Gaming Inc. announced plans recently to build a so-called mini-casino in this Berks County community on the edge of Amish Country.
Penn National Gaming, which operates the Hollywood Casino near Hershey, saw an opening to place a new gaming hall at a Pennsylvania Turnpike exit just outside Chester County to attract gamblers from Philadelphia’s growing western suburbs. Caernarvon Township, which includes Morgantown, saw an opportunity to capture host-community tax benefits for its 4,000 residents that otherwise might go to a neighboring municipality.
But many residents in this politically conservative area, where it’s not unusual to see Amish families driving horse-drawn carriages down Route 23 to shop at the Morgantown Walmart, regard the casino project as a deal with the devil. They see the proposed casino as a threat, an insult to a deeply religious community that could lead to an increase in drinking, personal bankruptcy, broken families, and general moral decay.
“In every way, it’s incongruent with this community,” said Sam Rohrer, a former state representative, who is president of the American Pastors Network, based in the Chester County borough of Elverson, bordering Caernarvon.
Several hundred people turned out for a standing-room-only hearing in Caernarvon on March 4, conducted by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which has final say on Penn National’s application. While some labor and business leaders spoke in favor of the project, most speakers were opposed, and they were the only ones who got rousing ovations.
“This is not a community, like Las Vegas, where ‘what happens here, stays here,' " said the Rev. Coleen Brandt Painter, pastor of the Elverson United Methodist Church, which helped organize a petition that got more than 1,000 signatures opposing the casino. “This is a community where everybody knows your name, and your business, and we like it that way.”
Some opponents painted lurid portraits of crime, sex trafficking, and predators that would be drawn to the casino, and they feared that unspeakable acts might spill over into a public swimming pool next to the proposed casino site.
“The kind of stuff they were bringing up is crazy,” said Allen Styer III, the chairman of the Caernarvon Township Board of Supervisors, which welcomes the casino project as a major boost to the town’s tax base. “I don’t foresee any additional human trafficking or murder-for-hire in our town.”
Styer said Caernarvon acted defensively out of fear that neighboring New Morgan Borough, a former iron ore mine that was notoriously formed into a municipality three decades ago to host a landfill, would gladly accommodate a mini-casino. If New Morgan got a casino, Caernarvon would get stuck with all the problems without receiving any host benefits, he said.
“It was really a no-brainer if you’re looking out for what’s the best interests of the community, based on facts," said Styer. Penn National estimates Caernarvon would get $1.6 million annually in new tax revenue, or about 62 percent of the town’s current $2.6 million budget.
Some opponents have resigned themselves that the Morgantown project is a done deal. Penn National, a homegrown Wyomissing, Pa., company that began with a single Dauphin County racetrack and is now a publicly traded firm with 30,000 employees and 41 properties nationwide, has already paid a $7.5 million license fee to the state to locate a satellite casino in the area.