By Marc Kovac
Jim Messenger said he was at the finish line 40 years ago when Secretariat won the Triple Crown in record-breaking fashion.
He saw Seattle Slew snag the Crown a few years later, and he’s been on hand for every Breeder’s Cup since the mid-1980s.
The Youngstown attorney is serious about horse racing.
“I’ve probably been to every racetrack in the United States and some in England,” Messenger told the Ohio State Racing Commission on Wednesday.
Messenger also lives a mile or so away from a proposed Austintown racino, which he expects will become a hot spot for racetrack aficionados, given the distance he and others currently are willing to travel to watch a race. “Our economy is burgeoning, and we have a lot of horse bettors in Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana, Lawrence County, Mercer County, all around us. We love the sport. ... There’s a whole bunch of us who will want to have our own table, who will want to watch the races probably two to three days a week,” he said.
About 70 percent of those bettors want a seat with a view of the track and a table to spread out their racing forms, he explained — adding that the proposed Mahoning County track won’t have nearly enough seats to accommodate them.
The racing commission is considering an application from Penn National Gaming to move a Columbus-area racetrack to Austintown.
The session near the Statehouse was the second in as many weeks, and commissioners have scheduled a third for next Wednesday for further discussion on spectator seating and other issues.
“I still have concerns about the number of seats,” said racing commission Chairman Robert Schmitz. “If you could take another look at that, I would appreciate it.”
Penn National added more than 250 indoor seats with racetrack views to its plans over the past week, and company officials urged commissioners to consider the $250 million investment the company is making to establish the Youngstown-area racino.
“We understand your desire to have higher seat counts,” said Steve Snyder, senior vice president of corporate development. “And I hope you understand our constraint to work within the envelope of the building [on which] we’ve already begun the permitting and construction process.”
Penn National is paying the state a $75 million relocation fee and $50 million license fee for two tracks it wants to move from suburban Columbus and Toledo to Austintown and Dayton, respectively.
Each new facility will cost about $125 million to construct, and the gaming company has estimated the creation of 1,000 construction jobs and 1,000 direct and related employees in the community as a result of each new track.
The main building will have room for up to 1,500 video-lottery terminals — essentially electronic slots overseen by the state lottery commission that are expected to draw crowds and bolster Ohio’s equine economy.
Penn National owns a 195-acre parcel, formerly zoned for a proposed Austintown industrial park, and has already completed initial site work on the property for the new Hollywood Valley Race Course.
Darren Crivelli, Austintown Township zoning inspector, said Penn already has conditional-use and other approvals for the project. He also said the township likely could move quickly on site plan changes, with the exception of a 200-plus-foot buffer between the racino and an adjacent residential area.
“In terms of the zoning and in terms of the engineering, the township is satisfied with this project, and obviously our elected officials support this project,” Crivelli told the racing commission.
Penn officials attempted to assuage commission concerns about the number of horse stalls and spectator seating on the grounds.
Snyder said Penn is working with the state’s horsemen association to identify lower-cost options for barns, a process that could more than double the number of proposed stalls.
Penn’s current plans include indoor and outdoor seating with track views for more than 1,160 people. In response to earlier commission concerns, the company increased indoor seating with views of the track to 518 from more than 200.
The racing commission asked Penn to consider additional seating, but Penn officials want to open the racino next year, and Snyder cautioned that changes to the building’s proposed footprint likely would add four to six months or more to that timeline.
“We are very anxious to get these facilities built, to get these facilities open ... We are at a point now where we’ve started site work, we are ready to order steel, we are ready to begin construction on these facilities,” he said.
He added later, “If you’re asking us to add seating, we must expand the building, and expanding the building will delay the schedules that you’ve seen.”
Crivelli added: “There’s room to accommodate, but I just don’t think you’re going to need those outdoor seats for a winter racing schedule. It’s not going to be very necessary, I think, to have outdoor seating in January.”
Though he did not attend the meeting, Austintown Township Trustee Jim Davis said he remains optimistic for the future of the project. “I hope Penn National’s efforts to add seating will persuade the racing commission to approve [the transfer],” Davis said.