Ground was formally broken Thursday — site clearance has been going on for a while — for the $125 million racino in Austintown. If all goes well, the thoroughbred horse-racing track and slots casino will open in the first half of 2014.
The atmosphere at the ceremonial shoveling was appropriately positive. There were no references to the battle Penn National Gaming, the owner-operator of Hollywood at Mahoning Valley Race Course, waged with the Ohio State Racing Commission over seating at the racetrack. The flap had threatened to delay completion of the facility by at least six months.
But now, it’s full speed ahead to the day when the Mahoning Valley will be able to celebrate its roots: gambling.
Gambling in all its forms has been as significant a part of this region’s history as, say, steel.
CHALLENGE FOR PENN NATIONAL
And therein lies the challenge for Penn National Gaming, the leading owner/operator of racetracks and casinos in the country. Regular gamblers in the Valley have had a lot of outlets for many, many years to indulge their passions, going all the way back to the Mafia-run bug and even Las Vegas-style casinos. The late mobster Joey Naples made many a young man about to be married happy by running the tables at the stags.
There always was horse racing at tracks within driving distance of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.
Then came the Ohio Lottery in all its permutations and finally the explosion of the casino industry around the country.
In other words, regular gamblers — as opposed to the occasional bettor — have been spending their dollars close to home and away and have, in fact, become the key customer base for Mountaineer Race Track and Casino in Chester, W. Va.
Unfortunately for Penn National, it’s the same customer base the company will be banking on to make the Austintown racino a success. Gambling establishments make their money from their regulars, from those who carry preferred-customer player cards in their wallets and who get free food and drinks.
CAN HOLLYWOOD CONQUER MOUNTAINEER?
Though they welcome all bettors, they know that they must keep their regulars happy.
And that’s what Mountaineer, in particular, has done. Gamblers are creatures of habit, and the racetrack and casino in West Virginia has gone out of its way to give Valley residents a place to call home.
Indeed, studies have shown that prior to Ohio voters’ approving casino gambling, Ohioans spent more than $1 billion annually gambling out of state.
The goal for Penn National, which also owns Las Vegas-style casinos in Columbus and Toledo, and Rock Ohio Caesars, which owns Horseshoe Casino Cleveland and Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati, is to keep Ohioans gambling at home.
With Mountaineer, Presque Isle Downs and Casino in Erie, Pa., the Meadows in Washington, Pa., and Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, all within driving distance of the Mahoning Valley, the challenge is obvious.
While the Austintown racino will have the newest horse-racing track in Ohio in 50 years, the casino will only feature electronic slot machines — video display terminals. There are no table games.
How, then, does the company build up its customer base from within a 50-mile radius?
Penn National Gaming didn’t become No. 1 in the nation by leaving its profit-and-loss statements to chance. The company has done extensive research and no doubt has a marketing plan that will address the challenges inherent in opening a gambling facility amid many other well established joints within easy driving distance of Austintown.
With 1,000 construction jobs and another 1,000 permanent positions to be created with the opening of Hollywood at Mahoning Valley Race Course, the economic benefits of the huge investment by Penn National are plain to see. The company is taking a chance on the Valley, and the question that now looms is whether area gamblers and occasional bettors will show their appreciation by playing at home.
Penn National can deliver a strong statement about what it sees as its role in the community at large by tailoring its hiring of the permanent staff to college-educated young Valley residents who are leaving the area in droves.
Company executives should avoid a major pitfall: Hiring the relatives and friends of politicians. They have, generally, not served the area well.