By MARC KOVAC
Austintown Township officials expressed frustration at yet another state setback for construction of a Valley racino, saying requirements for more seating will set the process back by months.
Penn National Gaming officials said they will go back to the drawing board on plans for the new racino in the township, after the Ohio State Racing Commission declined to OK a relocation permit.
Instead, the commission told the company to nearly double the number of indoor seats at the facility.
The decision means a delay of four to six months or more in the construction of the Hollywood Mahoning Valley Race Course and the track’s anticipated opening date in 2014.
“It’s frustrating because we were ready to reward about $4 million worth of steel and foundation contracts ... and we’re not going to be able to move ahead with that, obviously, because we now have to go create new plans and come back to the commission at some point in the future to get permission,” Bob Tenenbaum, Penn National spokesman, said after the decision Wednesday.
He added, “In terms of commitment to these projects, we are still committed, but we are going to have to stop construction and regroup and go back to the drawing board and come up with some new plans. And that’s going to take months, and that’s going to delay the projects. It’s going to delay the jobs.”
Penn National has been working for months to gain racing commission approval to relocate two of its existing horse tracks to Austintown and Dayton from suburban Columbus and Toledo, respectively.
The company has agreed to pay the state a $75 million relocation fee and $50 million license fee for each project, plus pump $125 million into each new facility, with space for horse racing and thousands of state lottery-administered electronic slots.
Penn already owns a 195-acre parcel in Mahoning County, formerly zoned for a proposed Austintown industrial park, and has completed initial site work.
Company representatives have appeared before the state racing commission three times in as many weeks with hopes of gaining approval for the relocations. But commissioners have repeatedly voiced concern about the number of indoor seats with views of the racetrack.
“We continue to have real concerns about amenities for the horse racing fans,” said Commissioner Mark Munroe. “I’m from the Mahoning Valley. In fact, I lived in Austintown for a period of time. ... There’s a lot of buzz in the community about this racetrack. Nothing would disappoint me more than to find out that we’ve got fans who want to come and view horse racing and be disappointed because there aren’t sufficient seats....”
He added, “I understand that you’re on a tight time frame. Believe me, we want to see this project launched as soon as possible.”
Austintown Trustee Jim Davis and zoning inspector Darren Crivelli attended the meeting and spoke to Munroe after the 4-0 vote to require more seats. Davis said he felt the commission’s process was “dysfunctional” and told this to the commissioners.
“I expressed my displeasure with the commission and with what loopholes the process has,” Davis said. “This whole process has been a guessing game for Penn National. They’ve never been given a definitive number of seats or been told what’s required of them.”
The 650 indoor seats sought by the commission seem like an arbitrary number to Davis and Crivelli, who maintained that Penn National had done studies and come to the number of seats based on consumer activity at other racinos. “It’s in Penn National’s best interest to maintain that [original] architectural footprint,” Crivelli said.
Davis said he spoke privately to Munroe, telling him he hoped Munroe would be a “liaison for this project” and help lobby the commission to move the project along. The hope was that Munroe would discuss it with the board before its April 18 meeting.
“Penn National doesn’t want to have to add those seats,” Davis said. “What Mr. Munroe is acceptable to, what he said was, ‘Show me plans that show you could add 650 seats if you wanted to.’”
But Munroe said the unanimous vote of the commission requires the seats to be present in the plan. He said he told Davis that he would be glad to consider other ideas and strategies along with the seating changes.
“I’d be glad to look at anything, but [Penn National’s] plans as they currently stand are inadequate,” Munroe said.
In response to racing commission comments, Penn has changed configurations and enclosed an area to boost the number of indoor seats. According to projections released Wednesday, the new racino will have 518 indoor seats with views of the track, 242 indoor seats without track views and 650 outdoor bleacher seats at trackside.
But the indoor seating options still were not adequate for racing commission members Wednesday, noting that the track will offer live racing over 75 days annually, from Oct. 15-April 15.
“You’ve got to be a heck of a race fan or any kind of fan to sit outside in the bleachers in December, January, February ...,” said Commissioner William Koester. “No one’s going to sit in those seats.”
Instead of signing off on the relocation permit, the commission moved to require Penn to add hundreds of indoor seats to its plans.
“We’d like to see another 650 seats that are enclosed,” said commission Chairman Robert Schmitz. “How you come about that or how you do it is obviously a challenge for you.”
Steve Snyder, senior vice president of corporate development, said the seating is comparable to other Penn tracks and likely will meet demand.
“Penn National is the largest operator of pari-mutuel wagering horse tracks in the country,” Tenenbaum added. “What we proposed is based on our experience studying the market and what we felt the market would bear and what the demand would be in the local market.”
Snyder said no additional seats could be added under the existing design. He said the company has been “scurrying” to address racing commission concerns, but he criticized the “arbitrary seat count” members have set and reset in recent weeks.
“This process is broken,” he said, adding, “To honor your request, these projects, these jobs, this investment in Ohio will be delayed by six months or more.”
Contributor:Vindicator staff writer Susan Tebben