RELATED: • Austintown-track foes are off and running
• If all goes well, Valley track could open in 2013
By DAVID SKOLNICK
Two state legislators from the Mahoning Valley said they’ll start discussions with key political leaders next week to legalize slot machines at Ohio’s seven horse racetracks.
Legalization of slot machines – also known as video lottery terminals or VLTs – at the tracks is needed for Penn National Gaming Inc. to relocate its harness track in Toledo to Austintown, said Eric Schippers, the company’s senior vice president of public affairs.
State Reps. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, and Ronald V. Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th, said Thursday they plan to get the ball rolling to legalize VLTs.
Specifically mentioned by the two legislators as key supporters who can help with the VLT legislation were House Speaker Pro Tempore Louis Blessing Jr. of Cincinnati, R-29th, the No. 2 Republican in the House, and state Sen. Bill Seitz of Green Township in Hamilton County, R-8th, chairman of the Senate’s Government Oversight and Reform Committee.
“We want to hurry this up and do it as a stand-alone bill,” Hagan said.
If that fails, Gerberry said legalizing VLTs could be included in the state’s budget bill, which the Legislature must approve by July 1.
But waiting that long could slow down the process of getting the gaming license changed from Raceway Park in Toledo to the vacant 186-acre Centerpointe business park in Austintown, off state Route 46 and south of Interstate 80, the legislators said.
Another timing issue is a potential horse racetrack and casino near New Castle, Pa., Schippers said.
“This is going to be a very important border to stop gaming money from leaving Ohio,” he said. “All we can do is reinforce [that] the time element is critical.”
It would be difficult for this area to support two major racetracks/casinos, he said.
Without slot machines — up to 2,500 would be planned at the Austintown site — Penn National won’t relocate to the Mahoning Valley, Schippers said.
“This is a speculative proposal,” he said. “We hope the governor and state Legislature will approve VLTs.”
Schippers came to the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber’s downtown Youngstown office Thursday to discuss Penn National’s plans for the racetrack.
Penn National’s plans were first disclosed about a month ago.
But it wasn’t until Thursday that the company “finally, formally and officially announced” the plans, Schippers said, adding that the proposal was “one of the worst kept secrets in the state.”
Penn National also wants to move its thoroughbred Beulah Park near Columbus to the Dayton area.
The company is opening Las Vegas-style casinos in Toledo and Columbus next year, which Schippers said will adversely impact their racetracks in those areas.
The company publicly discussed plans for moving both tracks for the first time early Thursday at a meeting of the Ohio State Racing Commission in Columbus.
Penn National officials then had press conferences later Thur sday in Youngstown and Dayton.
The new tracks would open in 2013 if everything goes according to schedule, Schippers said.
Research done by Penn National projects annual VLT revenue at the proposed Austintown location at $233.9 million compared with $91.2 million if the company stays at Toledo’s Raceway Park.
Under a failed proposal in 2009 from then-Gov. Ted Strickland, the state would get half of all VLT revenue.
Current Gov. John Kasich hasn’t decided if he favors legalizing slots at the state’s horse racetracks.
Penn National hasn’t discussed VLTs with the governor, Schippers said.
Schippers said his company understands that this area has been burned before with major projects that never materialized.
“It’s very clear there’s a lot of trial balloons floated in the Mahoning Valley and, unfortunately, not a lot of them have come to fruition,” he said.
Schippers added that local officials told his company, “Don’t go down this road unless you’re serious.”
The company “took that to heart,” he said.
Penn National is proposing the two $200 million racetrack relocations even though slot machines are currently illegal at such establishments.
The reason, Schippers said, is to provide state officials with information about the benefits of legalizing slots.
“It’s great to start this discussion now to provide that broader context as the debate may hopefully unfold in the Legislature.”