The Mahoning Valley should be pleased and excited that an agreement was finally reached between the Ohio State Racing Commission and Penn National Gaming to permit the relocation of Penn’s Columbus race track to Austintown. The Austintown racino will bring new jobs and much needed economic activity to the Valley.
The project experienced a month delay when the racing commission insisted that Penn step up its game and provide modest but very necessary improvements to its building plans.
Between construction costs, license and relocation fees, Penn Gaming is spending a quarter billion dollars on this new gaming operation and race track, the first new Ohio track in some 50 years. In light of this investment, we were quite surprised that Penn’s initial plans for the track included only 66 stadium style seats, 20 box seats and 17 tables for race fans. There were no dormitory facilities as required by law, and there were insufficient barns and stalls to support a full racing schedule.
Much has been said about Penn’s expertise in running racetracks. However there is a big difference in knowing the right thing to do and having the willingness to do it. While the video lottery machines seemed to be getting all the attention, it appeared that horsemen and women were playing second fiddle.
To make matters worse, local politicians seemed fine with Penn having its way, just so long as Austintown got its million-dollar check and phones would stop ringing with complaints about the delay, never mind the fact that Austintown was getting the short end of the stick. The absurd stories in The Vindicator about “conspiracy theories” and “politics” stopping the project were not helpful. Notable exceptions were Rep. Ron Gerberry and Sen. Joe Schiavoni who understood the racing commission was working to get Austintown and the other new tracks in Ohio the best deal possible.
In the end, we reached a good accommodation with Penn Gaming without the threatened six month delay. The horsemen now have the minimum facilities they require to actually race. The 1,000 seats in the live racing area include about 600 seats with a good view of the track with bar and meal service. This is nowhere near the 5,000 seats to be found at nearby Thistledown, but the commission agreed it was a good plan. Just like the YSU stadium, Stambaugh Auditorium, Covelli and Beeghly Center, there will be times when seats go unused. It is certainly our expectation there will also be times when those seats will be used, and it’s much easier to build a proper facility now than to make changes later.
New era in racing
Racing is not what it was 25 years ago, but with increased purses due to lottery terminal wagering, we are on the verge of a new era of racing in Ohio. Time will tell whether Penn will promote live racing or if fans will come to enjoy a new sport. Because of our efforts, Austintown has the beginnings of a much better racing operation that will bring jobs and fans to the Valley.
Mark E. Munroe is a member of the Ohio State Racing Commission and is the chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party.