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They’re off, but not in the Valley



Published: Sun, April 7, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)


There’s a racino (horse-racing track and slots casino) opening on Tuesday — within driving distance of Austintown. It’s called Thistledown and is owned by Rock Ohio Caesars LLC, a joint venture partnership between Rock Gaming LLC and Caesars Entertainment Corp.

Rock Gaming’s owner is Dan Gilbert, who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers and is founder of Quicken Loans.

Rock Ohio Caesars owns Horseshoe Casino Cleveland and Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati, both full-service, Las Vegas-style establishments.

More than $80 million was spent renovating Thistledown, which will offer live and simulcast horse racing, more than 1,000 video lottery terminals and year-round entertainment.

‘Slush bar’

A news release offers this description: “Thistledown Racino is undergoing an $88 million renovation that will create a 57,000 square foot gaming space with a variety of dining and nightlife options including a Diner, two food court outlets, a lounge for racino guests and a slush bar.”

The 89-year-old race track is home to the Ohio Derby and the Best of Ohio series. It is one of three thoroughbred racing tracks in Ohio.

To repeat: It’s within driving distance of Austintown — as is Horseshoe Cleveland. Also within a tank’s worth of gas (if you’re into gas guzzlers) is Mountaineer Race Track and Casino in Chester, W.Va.; Presque Isle Downs and Casino in Erie, Pa.; The Meadows in Washington, Pa.; and, for good measure, Three Rivers Casino in downtown Pittsburgh.

Still don’t get the picture? Pull out a map of northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania, pinpoint Austintown, then locate all the race tracks and casinos within a comfortable drive.

Why Austintown? The township is to be the home of the $125 million Mahoning Valley Race Course and Hollywood Slots owned and operated by Indiana-based Penn National Gaming. The company also owns Las Vegas-style casinos in Columbus and Toledo.

And, Penn National is building a racino in Dayton.

But a not-so-funny thing has happened to the Austintown project: the Ohio State Racing Commission will not permit the starting gate to be opened.

The commission is made up of political appointees. Republican Gov. John Kasich appointed four of the five members, including Mark Munroe, chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party. Former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, appointed one member.

The commission has refused to sign off on Penn National’s construction plans for the Austintown racino. The point of contention is the race track seating. The commission is demanding at least 1,000 enclosed seats, while Penn National’s last proposal was for 518 indoor seats with views of the track, 242 indoor seats without track views and 650 outdoor seats.

The racing panel members told the gaming giant that they want another 650 seats enclosed.

Penn National officials warned that it would take a major reconfiguration of the 186-acre site off state Route 46 near the Interstate 80 interchange. The site is the former Centerpointe property and cost $4.6 million.

Penn National is investing $250 million in the project: $100 million for the casino, which will feature 1,500 slot machines, restaurants, entertainment facility and retail businesses; $25 million for the race track for thoroughbred racing, grandstand and stables; $75 million to relocate its Beulah Park track near Columbus and $50 million for a licensing fee to the state lottery commission.

Opening’s delay

Company officials have said that meeting the racing commission’s demand could delay the opening of the racino, scheduled for the first half of 2014, at least six months.

Six months is a lifetime — given that the Mahoning Valley residents are being pulled in all directions by casinos.

It is no accident that all these establishments, including Three Rivers, regularly advertise in The Vindicator. The return on their investment in newspaper advertising dollars is huge. Just drive through the parking lots of the casinos and you’ll find Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana county license plates galore.

The state racing commission should get off its high horse (yes, that’s an intentional pun) and let Penn National do what it does best. The company is a leading owner and operator of casinos and racetracks in the U.S. and Canada.


Comments

1gdog4766(1415 comments)posted 1 year, 3 months ago

Yeah, I mean look at all the places you already have to spend my tax dollars in the form of SSI, Social Security Retirement and Welfare payments. I mean it boggles the mind all the places to gamble with taxpayers money.

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2Knightcap(682 comments)posted 1 year, 3 months ago

Penn National knows more about horse racing than political appointees like Munroe. They are offering over 1,000 seats to view horse racing. That is more than enough. All you have to do is go to any racetrack on any given day and you will only see about 200 spectators at the most. Most of the time they are standing by the rail or looking at horses anyway. I've been to the Hollywood Casino in Columbus and Penn National did a beautiful job. The layout and design was first class. Let people who know what they are doing go about their business. Again, just take a ride to Mountaineer and see how many people are watching horse races. Then drive back up the hill and see how many people are inside the casino playing slots, eating and drinking. They come by bus loads there. Not to the track.

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3samIam(211 comments)posted 1 year, 3 months ago

In the end the Ohio Taxpayer shall fund the roadblocks thrown at Penn National by Gibert's cronies.

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4Iona(10 comments)posted 1 year, 3 months ago

I disagree with Bertram de Souza's opinion on the racino and agree more with recent Vindy letter writers Emil Saloom (4/8) and L.S. Beckett (4/7). Penn National's original proposal for 204 seats makes me question their sincerity in doing right by racing.
The O.S.R.C. should continue looking out for racing's best interests and not let racing be cannibalized by the slots.

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5Iona(10 comments)posted 1 year, 3 months ago

As for Knightcap's observation about the numbers at Mountaineer, there used to be a good crowd trackside when management encouraged the crossover player. I used to enjoy being trackside and having the option to play slots and watch the live races. Then management eliminated slot machines from the grandstand and clubhouse mezzanine. While they left some slots on the ground level, they are old and out-dated and do not accept free play. When the crossover players are forced to the casino side where the slots are better and there is simulcasting to satisfy the desire for racing, the trackside numbers decline.

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6Whinersarewieners(14 comments)posted 1 year, 3 months ago

@Flick - That money is already being sucked away from locals. I see bus loads of Austintown/Youngstown residents travelling to WV, PITT, Or CLE to gamble. Only difference will be these people won't have to travel to West Virginia, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh. So, it is actually going to save them the cost of travel. I don't think that residents of Austintown/Youngstown who are not into casino's will all the sudden spend their life savings to go to this one. If someone's life is ruined by gambling alredy this casino won't be to blame. And yes, people will travel to the casino in Austintown because of the easy access. It's a lot closer and easier to get to than WV, CLE, or PITT. Build it and they will come......

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