By DAVID SKOLNICK
Speaking at an Ohio Senate Committee meeting, government, business and union officials touted the benefits of a proposed racino in the township that’s been delayed because the state racing commission isn’t satisfied with the plans for horse racing at the location.
The Ohio Senate Workforce and Economic Development Committee, which has no authority over the state racing commission, had what its chairman, Sen. Bill Beagle of Tipp City, R-5th, called an “informal hearing” Thursday at Austintown Township hall that he said will hopefully “get the project moving.”
The main issues with the facility are the number of enclosed seats with a views of the track, the number of stalls for horses and no living quarters for stable employees.
Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, officials with Penn National Gaming Inc., the company developing the racino, to be called Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course, and the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents about 2,500 horse owners and trainers who race thoroughbreds, talked about stalls and dorm rooms.
“That part will get worked out, and it won’t delay the project,” said Bob Tenenbaum, a Penn National spokesman, at Thursday’s hearing.
Penn National wants 500 horse stalls, while the association wants 1,500. But on Thursday, Dave Basler, the horsemen association’s executive director, said 1,100 is a reasonable number.
There are no dorms currently in the racino plan, but both sides say they’re discussing it.
The biggest area of concern is the number of enclosed seats with a view of the track.
Penn’s proposal is for 518 indoor seats with a view of the track, 242 indoor seats without track views and 650 outdoor bleacher seats.
The racing commission told Penn last month that it wanted an additional 650 indoor seats with track views. That can’t be done without redesigning the facility, which could take four to six months, Tenenbaum said.
“A new facility with only 500 seats and no clubhouse dining area is clearly not sufficient and will take away from the fan experience and ultimately hurt racing attendance at the facility,” Basler said.
The association understands that the state’s horse racing industry is struggling, he said, and slot machines are “capable of putting us back on a level playing field with tracks in our surrounding states, but only if it is done properly.”
Penn National is the largest operator of racetracks in the nation and knows better than anyone else how many seats are needed, Tenenbaum said.
But if the attendance at the proposed Austintown track is more than expected, Penn National would add more seats a year after it opens, and is willing to include that language in a contract it would sign to open the racino in the township, Tenenbaum said.
“We would accept that as a condition of the license,” he said.
Those at the hearing, except members of the horsemen’s association, urged the state racing commission to let the racino move ahead now.
“If this project comes to fruition, it will boost our sluggish housing market, provide jobs and additional revenue to our township,” said Austintown Township Trustee Lisa Oles.
David Kovass, co-owner of the Hampton Inn on North Canfield Niles Road, a short distance from the track site, said the facility “offers a great economic incentive to further develop the [Interstate 80-state Route 46] interchange into the entertainment destination of the Mahoning Valley.”
Eight major restaurant chains in the township have either opened or are doing major renovations largely because of the influx of people to the racino, said Trustee Jim Davis. Also, he said, two hotel chains are looking to open near the facility, and other businesses are interested in coming to the township.
Those with the horsemen’s association also want the facility to open but say the proposal shortchanges horse racing.
“The goal of [video slot machines] at Ohio’s racetracks was to revive the racing industry, not limit its growth,” said Richard Zielinski, an association member who’s owned thoroughbred horses in the state since 1986.
The state racing commission next meets at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Penn National will have representatives there but isn’t ready to offer a counterproposal, Tenenbaum said.
Penn National is paying $125 million to the state to relocate a racetrack from suburban Columbus to Austintown and for a license. The facility will cost
$125 million to construct, and Penn estimated there would be 1,000 construction jobs and 1,000 direct and related employees in the community as a result of the track.