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Gaming expansion requires patience



Published: Sat, January 15, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The horse racing commission might act on the new track in March.

A word of advice to those anxious to bet the ponies at a new western Pennsylvania harness racing track: Hold your horses!

It is unlikely a decision between competing racetrack proposals in Lawrence and Beaver counties will be made before March. Even with a decision then, it's unlikely the track would open before 2006 and slot machines planned for the track might not be there before late in the year or early in 2007.

The state Harness Racing Commission hearing officer considering applications from developers proposing tracks in Beaver and Lawrence just received written briefs backing the bids.

The law that unleashed gaming in Pennsylvania calls for seven so-called racinos -- racetracks that also house slot machine operations. Six locations have been locked up. The seventh will be one of the two competing western Pennsylvania sites.

The commission's executive secretary, Anton J. Leppler, was out of town and staff members would not discuss the proposals, a timetable for awarding a license or what the commissioners might do before making their decision.

A Racing Commission staff member would only say the board is "hoping that the report might arrive by late February."

If it does, the commission might act in March or may request more information either through testimony before it or additional paperwork.

Recommendation

The report will recommend one of the competing proposals, but the three-member commission is not bound by it.

Last year's gaming law also authorized five free-standing casinos and two casinos in resort hotels. The tracks and free-standing locations will pay $50 million for a gaming license and could house up to 5,000 machines each when fully operational. The resort licensees will pay $5 million and be limited to 500 slots.

After the racetrack license is granted, the owners must apply to the recently formed Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in Harrisburg for a slot machine license. An extensive background investigation into the parties and corporations would ensue.

It might be another year before that license would be granted, since the Gaming Control Board must check out and approve the corporate entities and their officials seeking gaming licenses.

Proposals

The proposal for Lawrence County is from Carmen Shick, whose family has operated Ambrosia Enterprises, a mining and construction firm near New Castle, for more than 70 years.

He's proposing a one-mile track at a facility to be called Bedford Downs, near Routes 422 and 551 that is midway between the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and New Castle and a short drive from the Youngstown area.

The Beaver County proposal is from Centaur Pennsylvania, a subsidiary of Centaur Inc. of Indianapolis, which is experienced in running tracks and gaming halls.

Centaur's proposal calls for a 5/8-mile track to be called Valley View Downs in South Beaver, off the Chippewa exit of Route 60. That track would be farther for Mahoning Valley people to travel than the Bedford Downs track.

Former GOP state Sen. Roy W. Wilt of Mercer County is chairman of the three-member Harness Racing Commission considering the racetrack proposals. Wilt lives in the Greenville area.

The other members are Richard J. Bolte Sr., a global shipping company owner and standardbred owner for 25 years, and C. Edward Rogers Jr., a certified public accountant.

It is expected to be at least three years before all the slot operations are at their maximums. At that point, Pennsylvania's 34 percent tax on gambling revenues is forecast to generate $1 billion a year.

In backing the gaming expansion, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell said he had tired of watching buses and cars loaded with Pennsylvanians going to casinos and racinos in nearby states, where coffers filled with gaming taxes.

That money allowed nearby states to fill budget shortfalls, reduce residents' taxes and fund business attraction and economic development programs.

Horse owners, breeders, track employees and racing fans are elated by the better horses sure to compete as slot revenues increase race purses, the money for which the horses' owners compete and which is divided among the race's top finishers.

The state estimates that more than 30,000 people are employed in farm operations engaged in horse racing.

Opposition

Police, some religious groups and antigambling forces oppose the gaming expansion, citing increased social costs in domestic disputes and marital breakups, personal bankruptcies, thefts and other crime.

"The impact of this law on the social fabric of Pennsylvania will be monumental," said Michael Geer, president of Pennsylvanians Against Gambling Expansion, which is suing in an effort to overturn the gaming expansion.

If all 61,000 authorized slot machines are installed, Pennsylvania will be second only to Nevada in the number of slot machines.

The racinos will be at The Meadows, a harness track near Pittsburgh; Penn National Race Course, a thoroughbred track near Harrisburg; Philadelphia Park, the Philadelphia thoroughbred track that was home to last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, Smarty Jones; and Pocono Downs, a harness track near Wilkes-Barre. Two others are being built: Chester Downs, a harness track in the Philadelphia suburb of Chester, and a thoroughbred track outside Erie.

A stand-alone casino is to be built in Pittsburgh and two are slated for Philadelphia. Speculation about the two other stand-alone casinos has focused on the former Bethlehem Steel works in the Lehigh Valley and on the Pocono resorts.




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