By Peter H. Milliken
The Mahoning County commissioners, all Democrats, lamented delays in the Austintown racino project due to a dispute over seating capacity, and said political considerations are interfering with the project.
However, Mark Munroe, county Republican Party chairman and a member of the Ohio State Racing Commission, said members of the horse-racing community are rightfully concerned about the seating issue and other aspects of Penn National’s proposed Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course.
The newest county commissioner, David Ditzler, who is a former Austintown trustee, was the most strident in his remarks at Thursday’s county commissioners meeting.
“It’s so sad that it’s become a political issue, and in my opinion, it’s Gov. [John] Kasich driving it down,” Ditzler said, adding that he thinks backers of the Cleveland Horseshoe Casino are exerting pressure to eliminate competition from the Austintown racino.
“Gov. Kasich is the driving force behind bringing racino operations to the [Mahoning] Valley” and to Ohio, Munroe said. “If it weren’t for the encouragement and support of the governor, these projects wouldn’t exist at all.”
Any suggestion that Cleveland casino interests are trying to kill the Austintown racino is “ridiculous,” Munroe said, when contacted after the county commissioners met.
“Shame on Mark Munroe if he has traded an opportunity to champion an effort to bring a great amount of jobs to our Valley for being a political hack,” Ditzler said.
“They [Penn National] presented this proposal more than six or eight months ago, and now we’re getting updated. Every week, they come in and they say, ‘250 seats isn’t enough, make it 500. Five hundred seats isn’t enough, let’s make it 650.’ How can a business come in and expect to do business within our Valley where the rules change weekly?” Ditzler asked.
“The [racing] commission had no idea that Penn National would come in with such a limited number of seats for racing fans,” Munroe said. “The commission’s interest is in advancing the sport of horse racing. Clearly, 200 seats for race fans would have been inadequate.
“What politics are we talking about? All the racing commission is trying to do is get a better facility for the Mahoning Valley.”
Horse owners, trainers and jockeys have expressed concerns about seating deficiencies, the lack of dormitories for grooms, inadequate barn and stall space for horses and inadequate facilities for jockeys at the proposed Austintown track, Munroe said. “We only have one opportunity to get this right,” Munroe added.
“Dave Ditzler and his fellow commissioners should join us in working with Penn National to get some of these serious track deficiencies corrected,” Munroe said.
“They’re stepping back to take a look at it now. Do they cut their losses? Do they reconfigure? Do they restructure? Do they wait six months?” Ditzler said, noting that $18 million worth of excavation already has occurred at the Austintown site.
“They’re the third-largest gaming company in the world. They are the largest with horse racing in the United States, so, if anyone knows their business, they know their business,” he said of Penn National and its officials.
“This is a prime example of what happens when politics enters into private business decisions. It’s unnecessarily driving up the cost of the project,” said county Commissioner Anthony Traficanti. A six-month delay in the project is significant, given the weather-related limits on winter construction activities in Northeast Ohio, he added.
Although Penn National has expressed concerns about delays due to the need to redesign the project, the company has never suggested that seating issues would affect the viability of the Austintown project, Munroe said.
“This is going to create thousands and thousands of jobs,” said county Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti, adding that loss of the project would be “sad for the Valley.” Righetti urged local residents to write to the racing commission and call their state legislators concerning the Austintown racino.
“This is such an important project, not only for horse racing in Ohio, but for the Valley, and the [racing] commission is doing everything it can to move this project along, but at the same time, make it a better facility to benefit the Valley,” Munroe concluded.