Opposition to casino proposal growing

By Bertram de Souza

It’s always risky to bet against a guy with boatloads of money, but here goes: Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and founder of Quicken Loans, will fall short in his endeavor to bring casino-style gambling to Ohio. Gilbert, in partnership with principals of Penn National Gaming Co. of Pennsylvania and My Ohio Now, wants Ohio voters in November to approve a constitutional amendment permitting full-service casinos in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo.

Penn National owns and operates casinos and racetracks, including Toledo Raceway Park, while Gilbert is today the most popular man in Cleveland, given the success of the Cavaliers led by LeBron James. My Ohio Now was unsuccessful last November in persuading Ohio voters to approve a plan to build a casino/hotel complex in Southwest Ohio. Major opposition came from Penn National Gaming, which owns the Argosy Casino in Indiana.

So, why bet against Gilbert and his well-heeled partners? Because substantive opposition is growing to defeat this November’s ballot issue. Proponents are circulating petitions to secure the 400,000 or so signatures needed to get the amendment before the voters.

2010 election

The biggest problem for the four-city casino plan is the 2010 statewide election in which Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland is seeking re-election. In an illustration of just how strange political bedfellows can be, Strickland’s opposition has him playing footsies with Republican right-wingers, Bible thumpers and, most significantly of all, with a major developer in Cleveland, Jacobs Investment.

One of the principals in the development company, Jeffrey P. Jacobs, is chairman and largest shareholder of MTR Gaming Group, which owns Mountaineer Casino and Racetrack, Presque Isle Downs, Scioto Downs and a telephone and online wagering company. Jacobs is also the owner and CEO of Colonial Downs in New Kent, Virginia. He is chairman and CEO of Jacobs Entertainment, Inc., a developer, owner, and operator of gaming and pari-mutuel wagering facilities throughout the United States. And, Jacobs is chairman and CEO of Black Hawk Gaming, Inc.

So, why the opposition from the Cleveland developer? The obvious answer is that casinos in Ohio would compete with the horse racing track in Franklin County and also with the casino and racetrack at Mountaineer.

If the opposition from the governor, the holy rollers and the Jacobs empire aren’t enough to persuade Gilbert that he’ll roll craps in November, the prominent businessman must deal with an aggressive campaign being waged in the Mahoning Valley against the constitutional amendment.

The campaign is the brainchild of the Mahoning County Democratic Party’s new chairman, David Betras, who has put his infant political reputation on the line.

Betras is incensed that the Gilbert plan does not include a casino for the Valley, and so he has decided to work against the ballot initiative.

Revenue sharing

This, despite the fact that if the constitutional amendment is approved and Gilbert et al do build the casinos (there doesn’t appear to be any provision in the ballot issue that would force them to actually build) Youngstown and Mahoning County could receive about $6 million a year under a revenue-sharing plan that encompasses all counties in the state.

But Betras insists that this region would be settling for crumbs — instead of a major slice of the pie. Thus, he is launching a region-wide campaign to defeat the amendment.

Asked if there was any wiggle room, the chairman said simply, “They should abandon this plan and come up with another one that includes a casino for the Valley.”

If he succeeds in getting the region to vote no overwhelmingly and the issue goes down in flames statewide, he will be seen as the conquering hero. But, if the issue passes, he will forever be known as the Democratic chairman who had visions of grandeur and ended up being taught a lesson in big-league politics.

Although Mahoning County voters said yes to casino-style gambling only once in the four times the issue has been on the statewide ballot, an analysis of the votes shows that the county had the highest overall support for the measures.

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