Most Pennsylvania Tracks Approved to Install Slots

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board approved the first slot-machine licenses in the state Sept. 27, clearing the way for five racetracks to add thousands of machines.

The seven-member board unanimously approved licenses for Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, just outside Wilkes-Barre; Philadelphia Park in Bensalem Township; Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack; Penn National Race Course near Harrisburg; and The Meadows in suburban Pittsburgh.

Pocono Downs was the first of the state's six licensed tracks to win approval and is expected to be the first one to open its slot-machine parlor. The state's sixth track--Presque Isle Downs, under construction near Erie--is likely to hear about its fate in late October. A licensing hearing on Presque Isle Downs was rescheduled to the morning of Sept. 27.

The approvals mark the biggest advance toward making casino-style gambling a reality in the Keystone State, more than two years after the state legalized up to 61,000 slot machines at 14 venues statewide.

The ambitious scope of Pennsylvania's fledgling gambling industry has spurred policymakers, racetrack owners, and casino operators in neighboring states to look for ways to compete.

Reaching the $3 billion prediction for gross revenues at the slots casinos would make Pennsylvania the third-biggest commercial gambling state in the nation. And the sheer number of slot machines allowable under the law would make Pennsylvania the second-biggest slots state behind Nevada, not counting Indian casinos.

Some of the racetracks plan to open slots casinos before the end of the year, and the rest would open over the course of 2007.

The Sept. 27 approvals are a big step for the track owners, which include the nation's largest casino operator, Harrah's Entertainment, and the Mohegan Indian tribe of Connecticut. The conditional licenses were included in Pennsylvania's July 2004 law that legalized slots as a way to give racetracks a head start in building gambling halls.

In December, the gaming board plans to decide whether to issue permanent slots licenses to the tracks, as well as to distribute seven additional slots licenses among the 15 casino developers and established resorts competing for them. A 14th slots license is set aside for whoever wins the state's final harness-racing license.

The owners of the slots casinos will get to keep almost half the revenue. The rest will go to causes including property tax cuts and big civic development projects, such as the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. A separate cut of the slots revenue that will fatten racetrack purses is being hailed as a long-overdue savior of Pennsylvania's suffering equine industry.