The Nittany Mall is open for business, but it wouldn’t seem that way given how some people talk about it.
News regarding the mall is often met with cynical responses that “no one shops there anymore.” While it’s true that the mall has declined in its prominence as a go-to shopping center, there are still about 50 stores and restaurants in operation. There are also 13 vacant storefronts, and Sears will add to that total.
The question mark hanging over the Nittany Mall is whether the community will continue to support its tenants just enough in the long term or if its fate will be similar to Northway Mall. The Pittsburgh-area shopping center was frequented so little that only about half of its tenants were left until it was demolished and redeveloped in 2015.
Northway Mall, rebranded as The Block Northway, is now a burgeoning collection of retailers like Aldi, Marshalls and PetSmart.
What might revive Nittany Mall and save it from falling in familiar fashion is a satellite casino, conceivably too small to interrupt the surrounding community, but large enough to boost the economics of nearby retailers and restaurants. It is also possible that a casino coming to the mall would present a redevelopment opportunity for the property.
College Township’s council, unlike six other Centre Region municipalities, has decided to keep open the possibility of a casino within its border, if only to provide a boost to the mall, the lone space where a gambling center could operate.
College Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh said there would be little downside to having a casino at the mall, and it would likely become a destination in central Pennsylvania. He emphasized that the township, which would benefit financially from having a mall in its borders, has no control over whether a casino would be located at the mall. The only parameters set by the township is through ordinances, including the adult business ordinance, which makes it impossible for a casino to be located elsewhere in the municipality.
Brumbaugh has not talked to any potential investors about having a casino in the area. Nittany Mall manager Polly Welch also said no one has approached her about replacing Sears with a casino.
The sad reality of what was once a hub of bustling activity is that the Centre Region’s lone mall has lost two anchors — J.C. Penney and Sears — in three years and witnessed Get Air Trampoline Park slip through its hands. J.C. Penney was replaced by Dunham’s, and the future of the space at Sears is unknown. Bon-Ton and Macy’s, which occupy the mall’s other anchor spaces, are seeing their stores closing rapidly on a national level.
Bon-Ton will close about 15 percent of its locations in 2018, and Macy’s will have closed about 14 percent of its stores in 2017 and 2018.
The mall and the retailers are not necessarily to blame — shoppers make about 52 percent of their purchases online, according to a 2017 UPS survey. Shoppers are also satisfied with their experience 20 percent more of the time when they buy something online instead of traveling to a store.
A casino could be a long-term solution.
“I think the potential for disruption is relatively limited for this size of a Category 4-licensed casino,” Brumbaugh said. “What they would offer, as I see it, is an economic positive for Nittany Mall and the surrounding properties.”
Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said there could be pluses and minuses to having a casino in College Township. He voted against the original gambling bill for Pennsylvania, but said in hindsight casinos across the state have operated well and have not become bedrocks of crime, prostitution or bankruptcy.
If potential investors would want a casino in Nittany Mall, they would have to go through a bidding process.
Casino operators may submit sealed bids to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Satellite casinos may house up to 750 slot machines and 30 table games, and satellite casinos must pay 2 percent of gross revenue table games and four percent of gross revenue from slot machines. Half of the funds would go to the host municipality and the other half to the state, according to legislation.
College Township may opt out of the possibility of a casino by Dec. 31.