Will Valley racino ever be built?

Has the Mahoning Valley become Ground Zero in the battle of the “Casino Titans”? That question looms large as uncertainty prevails over plans by Penn National Gaming Inc., the nation’s leading gaming company, to build a racino (thoroughbred horse-racing track and slots casino) in Austintown.

Clearance and preparation of the 186-acre site off state Route 46 has begun, but the future of the project is up in the air because the Ohio State Racing Commission won’t approve the transfer of the racing license from Beulah Park near Columbus to Austintown. The commission is not happy with the construction plans submitted by Penn National. Members, the majority of whom were appointed by Republican Gov. John Kasich, want more than 1,000 trackside seats to be enclosed, while Penn National believes it can provide 760 seats enclosed and 650 outdoors without having to undertake a major revision of the development plan.

The gaming giant says its seating numbers are based on marketing studies; the commission argues that it knows best when it comes to horse racing in Ohio.

What’s going on?

Conspiracy theorist

Here’s an answer from the mind of an individual who relishes conspiracy theories:

Members of the racing commission are delaying the launch of the $125 million Mahoning Valley Race Course and Hollywood Slots to give the owners of Thistledown racino in North Randall near Cleveland time to relocate the facility to the Akron-Canton area. As Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Thomas Ott noted in a story in March published in The Vindicator, Gov. Kasich has given Rock Ohio Caesars LLC the option of moving Thistledown.

Why would Rock Ohio Caesars want to uproot the racino, which opened last week after an $88 million upgrading? Thistledown has been a thoroughbred race track since 1924. Here’s why: Rock Ohio, a joint venture partnership between Rock Gaming LLC and Caesars Entertainment Corp., also owns Horseshoe Casino Cleveland. Having two gambling establishments so close to each other dilutes the customer base.

“A majority of the money invested in Thistledown went for the lottery terminals and other equipment that can be moved,” the Plain Dealer reported. “The company could apply the expenditure to the $150 million the state requires for racino improvements. Under state law, Rock must decide no later than June 2014 whether the track stays or moves.”

Although an official of Caesars told the newspaper that the Horseshoe and Thistledown can share turf, having the racino in Akron near the airport will let Rock Ohio tap the lucrative gambling market that is the Mahoning Valley.

Penn National, which has Las Vegas-style full service casinos in Columbus and Toledo, is in a battle with Rock Ohio, which also owns and operates Horseshoe Cincinnati.

When the Kasich administration was working out the details of racinos being established, the governor and Rock Gaming LLC owner, Dan Gilbert, who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers and founded Quicken Loans, formed a mutual admiration society, according to veteran politician observers in Columbus.

But the relationship between Kasich and Penn National executives was contentious, at best.

It should come as no surprise that the governor’s office wouldn’t shed any tears if Gilbert got the better of Penn National. After all, the racino in Austintown could be viewed as an in-your-face move against Gilbert and his partner, Caesars.

The giants of the casino industry are clashing and the Valley seems to be Ground Zero.

Deep gambling roots

Residents of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties have deep roots in gambling, dating to the heyday of the Mafia, which operated the “bug” and illegal joints that raked in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Thus, the conspiracy theory lurking in this writer’s mind: if the Austintown racino doesn’t pan out and Thistledown moves to Akron, Valley residents will be the natural customer base and will have a shorter drive than to Mountaineer Race Track and Casino, which is owned by another of Gilbert’s competitors.

Owners and operators of gambling establishments surrounding the Mahoning Valley will lose gobs of money if the Austintown racino is built.

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