Why not a casino for Y’town?

Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone may not have planned it, but by doubling down (black jack anyone?) on the casino issue, he undoubtedly has attracted the attention of two major gaming companies that are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in Ohio.

One of them, Rock Ohio Caesars LLC, a joint venture of Midwest-based Rock Gaming LLC and the world’s largest casino entertainment company, Caesars Entertainment Corp., will have a grand opening Monday of its Horseshoe Casino Cleveland.

Caesars Entertainment will manage the Las Vegas-style gaming facility, located in the historic Higbee building. Up to 1,600 jobs have been created.

The joint venture partners also plan to develop a Phase 2 casino in Cleveland between the banks of the Cuyahoga River and Huron Road in the heart of the downtown entertainment district.

Rock Ohio Caesars is targeting the Mahoning Valley for a major part of its customer-base, and the last thing the company wants to hear is that Youngstown is thinking of making a bid for a full-service casino to be located in the city-owned, debt-ridden Covelli Centre.

Rock Ohio Caesars is also building a casino in Cincinnati.

The second mega company pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Ohio is Penn National Gaming Inc., which is building casinos in Columbus and Toledo.

In-your-face challenge

In a move that could best be described as an in-your-face challenge to Rock Ohio Caesars, Penn National has announced it is relocating its horse-racing track from Toledo to Austintown. The company will invest at least $200 million to build the facility in the Centrepoint Development site off Route 46. It would be the newest thoroughbred track in Ohio.

Penn National, which unquestionably hopes to draw Valley gamblers away from Horseshoe Cleveland, certainly would not want Youngstown to have a full-service casino.

Mayor Sammarone is holding a pretty strong hand with regard to his Covelli Centre bid.

He should make it known to both Rock Ohio Caesars and Penn National that their top people need to talk to him.

The measly $3 million Youngstown is expected to get in a statewide revenue sharing scheme is a joke. Many millions more will be going out of the Mahoning Valley to the casinos in Cleveland and the other cities.

Indeed, Cleveland, once referred to as “The Mistake On The Lake,” will be laughing all the way to the bank. It will receive $20 million to $25 million a year in casino revenue, while Cuyahoga County will get between $8 million and 12 million. The county is dedicating all that money for economic development projects in the city.

Talk about a windfall.

Perhaps the Democratic mayor of Youngstown, Sammarone, should sit down with Cuyahoga County Executive Edward Fitzgerald, also a Democrat toying with the idea of running for governor in 2014, to talk about his city not willing to be a patsy for the mega casino operators.

Sammarone, who is nobody’s fool when it comes to Youngstown’s finances, has made it clear that a city with a declining population, shrinking tax base, deteriorating neighborhoods and a future that is iffy at best can no longer afford to prop up a losing financial proposition. He is asking the city’s consultant on Covelli to explore options. One is a sale of the $45 million “mistake” — the word reflects this writer’s long-held belief that the city bit off more than it could chew — while the other is conversion into a casino or even a really big sweepstakes gambling operation.

A solution

There is one solution to the Covelli Centre financial conundrum that would test the sincerity of those suburbanites who keep harping about how important the facility is to the quality of life of the Mahoning Valley. They should put their money where their mouths are.

A county-wide sales tax to generate at least $1 million the city needs to meet its annual debt obligation is the answer. The city borrowed $11.9 million in 2005 to help fund the $45 million mistake. In the six years Covelli has been in operation, there hasn’t been enough money generated to pay the operating and maintenance costs and the principal and interest on the debt. Thus, the city’s general fund has been stripped each year of scarce resources.

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