By Marc Kovac
Penn National Gaming presented state racing officials with a plan to add hundreds more seats to the proposed facility — and a warning.
“We are contemplating, if we can’t make these budgets work, we will not move, that’s correct,” Steve Snyder, senior vice president of corporate development, told the racing commission.
He said Wednesday that the company is prepared to revamp its suburban Columbus track to add video lottery terminals, rather than relocate to Austintown.
“It’s not a good business decision for racing in Ohio, it’s not a good business decision for the state of Ohio, but it’s our only alternative,” he said.
The head of the state racing commission said the panel would meet again in about a week and could make a final decision on Penn National’s proposed relocation of the suburban Columbus track to Austintown.
Penn National officials said they are willing to commit to boosting the number of indoor seats with track views at the new Hollywood at Mahoning Valley Race Course to more than 1,000 — in phases, if patron demand merits the expansion.
“We’ll take this under advisement, we’ll take a look at it and we’ll meet probably next week to move this thing forward,” said Chairman Robert Schmitz.
Wednesday’s session was the latest in a series of near-weekly public meetings involving the racing commission and Penn National and the latter’s application to relocate racetracks in suburban Columbus and Toledo to Austintown and Dayton, respectively.
Penn National has agreed to pay the state a $75 million relocation fee and $50 million license fee for the Austintown project, plus pump another $125 million into construction of the facility.
Penn National already owns a 195-acre parcel in Mahoning County, formerly zoned for a proposed Austintown industrial park, and has completed initial site work.
But the company and the racing commission have been at odds for weeks over seating arrangements at the racino, with commissioners saying there weren’t enough to accommodate cold-weather racing fans and Penn National saying the proposed seating is adequate for a facility where many customers would be more focused on playing video lottery terminals.
There’s room for about 1,500 of the state-administered electronic slots at the racino.
“There is no love lost between Penn National and the racing commission,” said Jim Davis, Austintown Township trustee, who has attended every meeting since the process began. “You could cut the tension with a knife.”
The two sides came to an impasse late last month, with Penn stopping construction at the Mahoning County site after the racing commission asked for 600-plus more indoor seats with track views.
The company said it would have to go back to the drawing board on its building plans, a prospect that it hinted could make the project unfeasible.
Penn has altered its plans several times, with the most recent version including more than 500 indoor seats with track views, another 242 indoor seats without direct track views and 650 outdoor bleacher seats.
On Wednesday, the company committed to two possible future expansions, valued at nearly $8 million, that would put the final number of indoor seats with track views at more than 1,000.
“We hope fans will turn out in record volumes,” said Eric Schippers, Penn’s senior vice president of public affairs. “That’s when we would trigger the additional phased expansion, and we’re committing to investing those dollars should the market be there for it.”
Davis said he plans to come to every meeting until the license transfer is approved or the commission completely denies the proposal. He might even come to meetings afterward if the license transfer is denied, to fight for the racino. But he hopes the issue will be resolved in a week.
“If it doesn’t get voted on next meeting, there needs to be some serious questions asked,” Davis said.