Ira M. Lubert, the Philadelphia investor who is currently licensed by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in connection with an ownership interest with Holdings Acquisitions Co., operator of Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, on Wednesday won the award to select a location for a new “mini-casino,” which would allow him to build a gambling facility with as many as 750 slot machines.
In a sealed bid opened by the PGCB, Lubert’s bid of $10,000,101 was declared the winner of the one available license for a Category 4 casino, a so-called mini-casino. A second, runner-up bidder was not identified. The minimum bid was $7.5 million.
Lubert, who opened the Valley Forge Casino Resort in 2012 and sold it six years later for $280.5 million, named Unionville Borough in Centre County as the center of a 30-mile diameter circle in which he will later identify a specific location for the casino. Within that territory, he could locate a casino in any municipality that did not previously prohibit a Category 4 casino from locating there. Lubert must pay the full $10 million fee by 4 p.m. Friday, and submit a formal license application in six months identifying the location.
The Nittany Mall in College Township, near the Penn State University campus, is one of the leading candidates for the location, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Lubert, a former Penn State board chairman and current board member, was identified in 2018 as a member of Nittany Gaming LLC, which had obtained an option to lease a former department store in the Nittany Mall. The mall is about three miles northeast of State College borough, which opted out as a casino location.
However, the auction does not mean that Lubert is guaranteed to get a license. He still must provide detailed plans and information concerning the proposed building site, amenities, and job projections of the project before the commission issues a license.
Wednesday’s auction for a single satellite casino license was made possible when a previous auction winner, Mount Airy Casino Resort, was formally denied a license for a site in Beaver County after failing to obtain financing for the project. The General Assembly passed legislation in May that required the gaming board to conduct the auction, and brought new rules that allowed any principal investor in one of the state’s casinos to bid on the new license, not just the 13 current casino licensees. Dozens of individuals, already vetted by the state as casino investors, were eligible to bid.
Lubert was eligible to bid because he is a principal of Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, where he holds a 3% interest. He previously was a shareholder in the Valley Forge Casino Resort in King of Prussia, which he and his partners sold for $280.5 million in 2018 to Boyd Gaming Corp. of Nevada.
The Category 4 casino licenses are unique to Pennsylvania. They can contain between 300 and 750 slot machines, and they allow to initially operate up to 30 table games for an additional fee of $2.5 million with the capability of adding an additional 10 tables games after its first year of operation.
Three mini-casinos are under construction, but none has begun operations. One project, the Live! Casino Pittsburgh property owned by Cordish, is on track to open later this year in the Westmoreland Mall near Greensburg. Cordish’s flagship property, the Live! Casino and Hotel Philadelphia, is set to open early next year.
The Category 4 casinos were originally envisioned as satellite operations of flagship casinos, but if Lubert succeeds in his application, his would be the first independent mini-casino. That means Lubert’s casino would not get some of the benefits that go to the other mini-casinos that operate as satellites, such as opening a sportsbook by piggybacking on the sports-betting licenses of the flagship casino. Lubert as an independent operator would need to apply for a separate $10 million sports-betting license if he wanted to open a sportsbook near the Penn State community.