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By David Skolnick

Friday, February 3, 2012

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By David Skolnick


Penn National Gaming Inc. is now planning to build a thoroughbred horse-racing track in Austintown rather than a harness track.

Local government officials praise the decision, saying it will benefit the overall success of the proposed $200 million facility.

Penn National wants to switch its gaming license at Beulah Park in Grove City, a thoroughbred track near Columbus, to the 186-acre Centerpointe business park in Austintown. The plan for the last year-plus was to relocate Raceway Park, a harness track in Toledo, to the Austintown site.

Regardless of the type of racing, Penn National officials say the company remains committed to investing about $200 million to build facilities in Austintown and Dayton.

Racing would end at Beulah and Raceway, located near the locations of Penn-owned Las Vegas-style gambling casinos.

But Penn officials said the moves are contingent on the state’s finalizing plans to place video lottery terminals, known as VLTs, at Ohio’s horse racetracks.

The switch is tucked away in the company’s 2011 earnings report, released Thursday.

In the report, Peter Carlino, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, wrote: “The state of Ohio has approved the placement of VLTs at the state’s seven racetracks and while we await the final regulatory framework, we are actively pursuing the relocation of our existing racetracks in Toledo and Grove City to Dayton and Youngstown, respectively, subject to the satisfaction of regulatory and other approvals.”

In a follow-up prepared statement to The Vindicator, Eric Schippers, Penn’s senior vice president of public affairs and government relations, said, “The current plan, which has not yet been finalized, is to seek relocation of Beulah Park to Austintown and Raceway Park to Dayton.”

He added: “This is based on a number of factors, including, the optimal use of each site from a design and layout perspective. As mentioned earlier, the relocation is dependent on the authorization of VLTs and we’re taking a deliberate approach at this point given the pending litigation.”

State Rep. Ronald V. Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th, said Penn’s property in the Dayton area wasn’t “big enough” for a thoroughbred track, leading to the switch.

“Which would you rather have? No question in my mind I’d rather have a thoroughbred track than a harness track,” he said.

Austintown Trustee David Ditzler said he and other township officials asked for several “different renditions about how the track would need to be placed.”

Bringing a thoroughbred track to the township is an upgrade from the original plan for a harness track, Ditzler said.

“It’s a much better draw and an opportunity for more people to come in, so it’s a huge upgrade,” he said.

A potential track for Lawrence County in Pennsylvania would be a harness track. The Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in Chester, W.Va. and Thistledown in North Randall, near Cleveland, are both thoroughbred tracks.

The Ohio House is expected to vote Wednesday on a bill that defines and clarifies laws regarding casinos, horse racing and VLTs at racetracks, said Gerberry, ranking Democrat on the House State Government and Elections Committee, which is expected to approve the proposal earlier that day.

“This legislation pretty much does everything needed to legalize VLTs at racetracks,” Gerberry said.

There also is a lawsuit from the American Policy Roundtable, a conservative organization, contending the governor and state Legislature exceeded their constitutional authority on VLTs. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has asked that the case be dismissed.

Gerberry said he expects construction at the Austintown location to start later this year.

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Canfield, D-33rd, assistant minority leader in the Senate, said he’s “pleased” to hear about the switch to thoroughbred racing in Austintown. He added, though, he’s “frustrated” that Penn National publicly unveiled the proposal a year ago and the state still hasn’t finalized plans to legalize VLTs.

“But the fact Penn National is making this decision and talking about a track is encouraging,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll get the facility. It’s good news, but I’m concerned because it’s taking so long.”