By Marc Kovac
and Kalea Hall
The state racing commission officially voiced its concern Thursday about the number of horse stalls planned at a racino already under construction in Austintown.
Commission Chairman Robert Schmitz said Penn National Gaming’s current plans for 760 stalls — 10 barns with 76 stalls each — are troubling, given that other tracks in the state have more than 1,000 stalls at their sites, and considering the investment the company is making in tracks in other states.
“You’re a brand-new track in Ohio and you want to do less stalls than what the other tracks in Ohio want to do?” Schmitz asked. “... A thousand stalls seems to be the benchmark for Ohio, and you’re not hitting that number.”
Commissioner Mark Mun- roe, who also serves as chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party, added that he was “very distressed” with the plans.
“From the very beginning we expressed concern about the number of stalls,” he said. “And I think there was almost universal agreement that we had to be closer to 1,000 [stalls]. I’m from the Valley and I hear this every day from some of my friends in the horse business.”
But Penn National officials said adding more stalls is problematic, given budget considerations and site-plan limitations.
“We are in an area where we feel 760 stalls is a fair number to start the facility with,” said Mark Loewe, Penn’s vice president of racing operations in Ohio.
The commission also approved a statement, read into the record, noting that Penn National’s stall plans are “lacking.” Schmitz plans to meet with company executives to discuss the stall count, and the issue would be on the November commission agenda.
Earlier this year, the commission signed off on Penn National’s plans to relocate its existing track in suburban Columbus to the Youngstown area, and construction already is underway at the Austintown site.
Penn National is planning a mid-2014 opening date for its new Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course, with video lottery terminals initially available and live horse racing tentatively scheduled to start in November.
The commission also reviewed Penn National’s 2014 racing date application, which calls for live racing Nov. 1-Dec. 20. The panel could approve the racing dates at its meeting next month.
Bob Tenenbaum, spokesman for Penn National, said the company was aware of the commission’s concerns over the stalls before the announcement, but adding more stalls would cause the company to go over budget on the project.
“We explained we have a budget for this project, and based on the budget, [we have] 10 barns with 76 stalls,” Tenenbaum said.
Penn National has $6.5 million budgeted for the cost of barns. Adding more barns “would require us to spend significantly more money,” Tenenbaum said.
“We would love to be able to build additional stalls, but we have to do it within the budget constraints of the project,” Tenenbaum said.
Penn National had conversations with the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Association Inc. about the possibility of adding more stalls, but keeping the same budget.
“At the time they felt they could help us find a contractor that could build more barns for the same amount of money, and in our view that plan doesn’t work,” Tenenbaum said. “We are continuing to talk with them.”
Austintown Township Trustee Jim Davis had no idea the issue of not enough stalls would come up because he thought it had already been negotiated with the racing commission.
“Obviously if that is an issue, it will have to be something Penn National will have to address,” Davis said. “I find this disturbing now that we are moving along and here is another issue. We will continue to move along.”