By Bertram de Souza
To hear the mastermind of State Issue 3 tell it, Youngstown was under consideration for one of the full-service casinos, but input from 3,000 Ohioans resulted in the city’s being eliminated. Instead, the decision was made to locate the casinos in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo.
Dan Gilbert, millionaire owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and founder of Quicken Loans, and Penn National Gaming are financing the campaign for State Issue 3. If approved by voters on Tuesday, Ohio’s constitution would be amended to permit the expansion of gambling in the state through the construction of Las Vegas-style casinos in the four cities. The amendment also would result in revenue sharing throughout the state.
While Gilbert said recently that, in retrospect, Youngstown should have been given a second look, it could well be that his comment was triggered by a very real concern about voters in the Mahoning Valley expressing their anger at the region’s being left out by voting no.
Gilbert debated Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams in the Cleveland City Club on Oct. 19, and he also was a guest, along with Boardman native Bernie Kosar, on the Oct. 24 radio talk show hosted by Dr. Bill Binning and this writer on WGFT-1330 AM.
With just two days to the general election, the proponents of State Issue 3 have put on a full-court press. They are well aware that the opposition, led by the Jacobs family of Cleveland, millionaire developers who also own casinos and a horse-racing track, has gotten traction with the argument that only a handful of people will rake in hundreds of millions of dollars if the issue passes and the four casinos are built. The opponents have argued that the constitution should not be used to line the pockets of a few.
There have been four previous attempts to expand gambling in Ohio and all four have been defeated.
Given the Mahoning Valley’s culture of gambling, the odds of Issue 3 passing would certainly have been improved had a casino been reserved for Youngstown, the region’s largest community.
So why wasn’t the area selected? It could well be because of our history.
The Valley’s national reputation as a haven for illegal gambling, earned during the heyday of the Mafia, is alive and well. The court testimony of mob boss Lenine “Lenny” Strollo when he turned government witness provided first-hand information about the lucrative numbers operations and the many gambling joints that existed in the region.
Indeed, an establishment that Strollo and his brother, Dante (also known as Danny), owned in Campbell was described by FBI agents as one of the largest illegal gambling spots in the country.
The All American Club on Wilson Avenue was known far and wide not only for the gambling — poker and barbut were the mainstays — but for the free food and booze.
According to Bobby Armstrong, a mob insider who turned government snitch after the Strollo brothers double-crossed him, it was nothing for the club to rake in $40,000 to $50,000 on a good night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Armstrong, who was in the federal witness protection program for many years, was credited with helping the government build cases against Strollo, Joseph N. “Joey” Naples, Ernie Biondillo and others.
Armstrong is no longer under government protection.
After he became an informant, he wore a wire for the feds.
“I told them how to wire the inside of Lenny’s office in the Stardust Motel,” Armstrong said during a recent telephone chat.
Gambling in the Valley is not only deeply rooted, but the mob’s involvement has given the area a reputation it can’t easily shed.
Thus, when 3,000 Ohioans did not select Youngstown as one of the cities for a casino, it should not have surprised us.
On the other hand, had Gilbert agreed to build a casino in the Valley, he would not only have acquired highly qualified, knowledgeable employees, but would have been assured of the house’s odds being even better than they are normally.
Mafia joints always won big.