Will Mahoning Valley hear the words ‘And they’re off!’?

There are many questions sur- rounding the proposed horse-racing track, resort and casino that need to be addressed, but the major one Mahoning Valley residents are asking has been answered unequivocally: There won’t be one dime of taxpayer money in the $300 million project. The developers aren’t even asking for a tax abatement or any other government assistance.

Indeed, the only involvement they seek from the Valley’s elected officials is a lobbying effort with the Ohio Racing Commission for a license to operate a race track. There hasn’t been a new one issued in about 50 years.

But two of the partners in Mahoning Valley Development Group, which would develop Mahoning Valley Downs & Resort, expressed confidence this week that the license would be approved because the financing already is in place. Rick Lertzman and Dr. Brad Pressman said that three national companies registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission are putting up most of the money, but they would not identify them. Lertzman and Pressman said it would be up to the investors to make public their involvement.

Who are these investors and why do they think that an eighth horse-racing track in Ohio will succeed when the industry, by all accounts, is in dire financial straits?

What about the casinos that are within driving distance of this region, and what effect will the proposed casinos in Cleveland have on the financial success of Mahoning Valley Downs & Resort?

Lertzman, a former business consultant, and Dr. Pressman, a retired podiatrist, also said that the group has secured options on 200 acres in the Valley and is looking to accumulate another 200. They would not reveal the location of the site because they’re concerned about the price being artificially increased.

The two partners have some experience in the push to expand gambling in Ohio. Two years ago, they were part of a group that sought to build a casino resort in Clinton County. But the voters defeated a constitutional amendment to permit the expansion.

However, last year, Ohioans approved an amendment that permitted casino-style gambling in the state, with two casinos to be built in Cleveland, and one each in Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo.

Video lottery terminals

Also last year, then Gov. Ted Strickland and the Ohio General Assembly decided to permit video lottery terminals (electronic slot machines) in Ohio’s seven horse-racing tracks. Strickland asked the Ohio Supreme Court to determine whether the VLTs are permitted as an extension of the state lottery, or whether they are banned under the state’s anti-gambling constitutional language. The supreme court has not issued a decision.

Lertzman and Pressman have said that the project will move forward even if video lottery terminals are deemed to be illegal when placed in race tracks.

However, they are confident that Ohio will ultimately join surrounding states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, in legalizing slots.

Meanwhile, the residents of the Mahoning Valley are being asked to support the developer’s application for a license from the Ohio Racing Commission.

Such support will come once all the details of the project are made public, especially the identities of the major investors. That the proposal calls for developing the project at no cost to taxpayers is a major selling point. But a wary region still demands: Show us the money.

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