HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania is quietly moving to allow gambling at more than 40 truck stops — including one site in Hermitage — and five mini-casinos while much of the attention on Pennsylvania’s gaming expansion has been focused on sports wagering and online gambling.
The state’s 2017 gaming expansion allowed for truck stops to offer gambling on up to five Video Gaming Terminals, or VGTs, which Gaming Control Board spokesman Richard McGarvey compared to slot machines. The law change also allowed for the creation of mini-casinos with up to 750 slot machines and 30 table games.
The Tic Toc Food Mart at 4195 E. State St. in Hermitage was among the initial 43 truck-stop locations granted conditional approval by the Gaming Control Board.
A woman at the Tic Toc corporate office in Mahoning Township, Lawrence County, who identified herself as “Diane” and declined to provide her last name said she was aware Tic Toc had applied for a truck-stop license at its Hermitage location, but she said she did not know the status of the application or how it might affect business at the store.
Most of the state’s 12 full-sized casinos have between 1,500 and 3,000 slot machines and 75 to 300 table games, according to gaming control board reports. Last year, the Gaming Control Board held a series of auctions for the rights to operate the mini-casinos. Mini-casinos were approved last year in five counties: York, Westmoreland, Lawrence, Cumberland, and Lancaster.
All together, those auctions generated $127 million in revenue from casinos seeking the right to operate the mini-casino locations, said Kevin O’Toole, executive director of the state’s Gaming Control Board.
He said some of those mini-casinos could be operating in the next “7 to 9 months.”
The truc- stop gaming locations should begin operating sooner, O’Toole told members of the House gaming oversight committee last month.
“Hopefully, some of the establishments will be in a position to implement late this fiscal year or in the summer,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Gaming Control Board approved the first five truck-stop licenses. They are near Interstate 80 in Emlenton, McElhattan, Snow Shoe and Loganton and along Route 22 near Loretto, Pa.
Thirty-eight other applicants – including the Tic Toc in Hermitage – remain under the conditional-approval status.
According to the board’s criteria, truck stop establishments can only have the five machines if they:
• Have diesel islands for refueling commercial motor vehicles
• Have sold or expect to sell an average of 50,000 gallons of diesel or biodiesel fuel each month for 12 months
• Have at least 20 parking spaces for commercial motor vehicles
• Have a convenience store
• Are a Pennsylvania Lottery sales agent and
• Are located on no less than three acres of land.
Once a truck-stop location has applied for the machines and receives conditional approval, an investigator from the Gaming Control Board will make sure the location meets the necessary requirements. A broader investigation will also conducted, including background checks of the location’s owners, McGarvey said.
Though he confirmed the Tic Toc in Hermitage was in the conditional approval phase, McGarvey was not sure how long the investigation could take place or whether Tic Toc had already been investigated.
“Everything the investigative unit does is confidential until they present their findings to the board at their next meeting,” McGarvey said.
Once approval to receive the machines is given from the Gaming Control Board, the locations would have to make sure the machines are kept in an area segregated from minors and kept under constant supervision. Employees will also undergo training including how to spot underage gamblers or the signs of problem gambling.
In some cases, the applicants may have a physical location but contract with a company that has been licensed by the Gaming Control Board to handle the application process and renovations if necessary, McGarvey said.
“I’d say there are about seven or eight companies that are licensed by the board that can set this up,” he said.
Truck-stop gambling is banned in the 10 counties where there are already full-sized casinos – Bucks, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Luzerne, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia and Washington.
While the move toward truck-stop gambling and mini-casinos is still months away, the state’s entry into the world of sports betting is well underway, O’Toole said.
Regulators completed testing recently on the sports betting operation at the Valley Forge Casino, he said. Similar testing is continuing at an off-track betting facility, Valley Forge Turf Club, operated by the owner of the Parx Casino in Bensalem. With those sites opening, there will be sports betting at eight locations in the state. Presque Isle Downs in Erie County, the only other site approved for sports betting, is expected to have its operation running “in the next month or so,” O’Toole said.
The six casinos offering sports wagering took in $32 million worth of sports bets in January, gaming control board data shows. That translated into $886,000 in state tax revenue and $52,000 in local tax to the communities where the sports betting parlors are located.
O’Toole added that gaming regulators expect that at least some of the seven casinos that haven’t already sought permission to offer sports betting will do so over the summer.
HERALD STAFF WRITER David Dye contributed to this article.