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Casino's effect is mixed

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - A decade after its launch, Mohegan Sun Pocono casino in Plains Township provides entertainment and millions of dollars in tax revenue to the region. The gambling behemoth, however, hasn't been good for everyone.

Mohegan Sun Pocono casino opened a decade ago and offers gambling, eateries, free live music, and a 238-room hotel.
Mohegan Sun Pocono casino opened a decade ago and offers gambling, eateries, free live music, and a 238-room hotel.Read more

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - A decade after its launch, Mohegan Sun Pocono casino in Plains Township provides entertainment and millions of dollars in tax revenue to the region. The gambling behemoth, however, hasn't been good for everyone.

"There's a brown circle around that place killing everything," said Thom Greco, a businessman in the Wilkes-Barre restaurant and nightclub industry.

Along with gambling, the casino boasts several eateries, free live music, a 238-room hotel, and lots of deals to get people in the door and keep them there. Establishments in its shadow say they can't compete.

"The day it opened up, I lost 30 percent of my business," said Lou Dominick, owner of his family's 70-year-old Dominick's Cafe just down the road from the casino. "Never recovered."

If the casino really wanted to help local business owners, Greco said, it would offer gambling only and let the community provide the other things.

Asked to comment on complaints that the casino is hurting neighboring businesses, Anthony Carlucci, the casino's president and CEO, provided a written statement earlier this month: "Mohegan Sun Pocono is committed to providing our guests, both in and around our region, the best entertainment, dining, and gaming we possibly can. We also feel that the more we can attract from a tourism standpoint, can definitely be a positive for the local businesses of all kinds in our area too, and vice versa."

Some nearby businesses say the opposite has been true.

"It killed the valley," said Dominick. "It's sucking the valley dry."

No net gain

While politicians and casino leaders tout the tax dollars generated from Mohegan Sun Pocono, some business owners argue it hasn't been a net gain.

"What they don't realize is they're taking it from the right hand and they're losing it from the left," Greco said. "Because you have a drop in taxes paid by other businesses that have been suffering."

Democratic State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski of Wilkes-Barre, who sat on the House gambling committee before redistricting moved the casino out of his district, said he knows some local businesses around the casino are hurting.

To help alleviate that, he tried to push a bill, so far unsuccessfully, that would allow bars to bring in a little more cash by legally operating video poker machines.

"I'm looking for balance," he said. "I'm looking to ensure that the casino industry continues to provide quality entertainment, but I'm also looking for ways we can help our bars, taverns, and clubs be able to survive."

Attempts to reach Republican State Rep. Aaron Kaufer of Kingston, who sits on the House committee, were unsuccessful.

Problem gamblers

Another issue emerging in the past decade is a higher number of problem gamblers, experts say.

Roy Gilgallon knows all about gambling addiction. As a 13-year-old, he remembers watching his father gamble away money earmarked to buy him a bicycle. The disease eventually took over his life, too, he said, as the former college football player became so consumed with football betting that he pulled away from his children.

Now one of the few, and perhaps only, certified gambling counselors in northeast Pennsylvania, Gilgallon, of Scranton, said 3 percent of people in a community become problem gamblers in the 10 to 12 years after a casino opens its doors.

Gambling addiction is a brain disease, said Charles O'Brien, an addiction researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and gambling addicts respond to poker and sports betting just as alcoholics respond to booze or drug abusers to narcotics.

"Put them in a scanner and you see the same part of the brain being activated," O'Brien said.

Gambling experts estimate the total number of problem gamblers in the general population to be 1 to 3 percent, said Josh Ercole, chief operating officer of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania.

Casinos don't increase that percentage, he said, but they do increase the total number of gamblers, and by extension, problem gamblers.

Gilgallon has seen the increase here since opening the doors to his clinic in 2012.

"Four years ago, I had three clients," he said. "I have over 100 now."

His patients span the generations - one is 73 and another is 21 - and new clients are always coming in.

Many gambling addicts also have intertwining substance-abuse issues, Gilgallon said. And his clients must tackle the same sorts of problems that come with addiction: divorce, extreme credit card debt, even forgoing medications to keep money for their habit.

"More state and local funding needs to be spent on prevention, awareness, and treatment," he said. "Particularly on the juveniles."

The state requires casinos to put a small fraction of their profits into programs for problem-gambling awareness and prevention.

Mohegan Sun Pocono goes beyond that mandate, Ercole said, partnering with the Council on Compulsive Gambling to give training programs for employees to recognize problem gambling, and advertising the gambling addiction hotline, 800-848-1880.

Those who don't trust themselves to gamble can ban themselves from state casinos in the Self-Exclusion Program. More than 10,000 people have done that statewide since 2006, according to the state's gaming control board.

A person may voluntarily place his or her own name on the self-exclusion list by submitting, in person, a request to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board office in Harrisburg.

Crime and the casino

Perhaps that diligence has prevented a surge in crime from accompanying legal gambling throughout the region. However, the huge amounts of cash generated there can lead to the occasional high-profile case.

The casino's former vice president of player development, Robert Pellegrini, 50, of Fairview Township, and a gambler he is accused of conspiring with, Mark Heltzel, 52, of Dallas, each agreed to plead guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, court documents state.

Prosecutors allege the men created a scheme that used $478,350 in free slots play to illegally win $422,147 at the casino from May 2014 to April 2015. A former beverage server, Rochelle Poszeluznyj, 38, of Kingston, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to a single count of money laundering.

Also, local law enforcement prosecuted several people in recent years who embezzled from their workplaces and later admitted it was to fuel gambling addictions.

But both Plains Township Police Chief James O'Malley and Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said they have seen no increase in crime, such as DUI or theft, around the casino. Plains police answer about 250 calls per year at the casino, but O'Malley touted the gambling funds that come to his department, allowing him to expand his force from 12 to 18 officers since the opening of the casino.

In the past, police were not able to say how many alcohol-related incidents in that area were related to the casino, but they both said it was a proportionate number based on the large volume of guests.