Racing panel should justify push for more racino seating

What does the Ohio State Rac- ing Commission know about the fan-base for thoroughbred horse racing in the Mahoning Valley that Penn National Gaming apparently does not? Whatever it is, members of the commission need to share the information with Penn National and the people of this region.

It isn’t enough to voice “real concern about the amenities for horse-racing fans,” as commission member Mark Munroe did last week, without providing some context. Munroe, incidentally, is a Valley resident and chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party.

Penn National, which owns and operates more than 20 horse racing and casino gambling facilities throughout the United States and Canada, has begun site clearance for its $125 million racino in Austintown, but the state racing commission’s refusal to grant the company a relocation permit threatens to push back the completion date at least six months.

The gaming giant needs approval to relocate two of its horse-racing tracks to Austintown and Dayton from Columbus and Toledo. It has agreed to pay the state a $75 million relocation fee and $50 million license fee for each project.

Company officials have appeared before the racing commission three times, and each time its plans for the Mahoning Valley Race Course and Hollywood Slots casino have been rejected.

At issue is the number of indoor seats with views of the racetrack. During a meeting Wednesday in Columbus, Penn National officials were told that the 518 indoor seats with views of the track, 242 indoor seats without track views and 650 outdoor seats were not what the commission envisions.

“You’ve got to be a heck of a race fan or any kind of fan to sit outside in the bleachers in December, January, February …,” said Commissioner William Koester. “No one’s going to sit in those seats.” The racing season would start on Oct. 15 and end on April 15.

But it was commission Chairman Robert Schmitz’s demand that could cause a major delay in the project’s completion.

“We’d like to see another 650 seats that are enclosed,” Schmitz said. “How you come about that or how you do it is obviously a challenge for you.”

No kidding.

As Bob Tenenbaum, Penn National spokesman, said after the meeting, “Penn National is the largest operator of parimutuel wagering horse tracks in the country. What we proposed is based on our experience studying the market and what we felt the market would bear and what the demand would be in the local market.”

Market studies

Thus the question: Does the racing commission have any market studies that would challenge the conclusions reached by Penn National?

If it does, those should be made public. If, on the other hand, commission members are operating on instinct, the people of the Valley certainly have a right to know how Schmitz and his colleagues arrived at the 1,400 figure for indoor seating.

The race course will have the newest thoroughbred racing track in Ohio, while the casino will feature 1,500 slot machines — with the ability to add another 1,000 if the market turns out to be bigger than Penn National expects.

About 1,000 jobs, direct and indirect, will be created; the construction phase will generate 1,000 jobs.

Penn National has paid $4.6 million for the 186-acre Centerpointe property off state Route 46 near the Interstate 80 interchange.

This project is one piece of the region’s economic revitalization mosaic. Therefore, the parties involved must work together to address the commission’s concerns.

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