State panel, Penn National must end latest racino flap

Six months ago, in the midst of a public battle involving the developer of a racino in Austintown and a state entity, we posed this question: “What does the Ohio Racing Commission know about the fan base for thoroughbred horse racing in the Mahoning Valley that Penn National Gaming apparently does not?”

Today, we make that same inquiry in the wake of another demand by the commission that threatens to derail the $125 million horse-racing track and slots casino being built off state Route 46. Construction has begun, but Penn National officials are not pleased with the new pressure being put on the company.

The commission, which got into a flap with the racino developer in April over the number of indoor seats with views of the racetrack, last week objected to Penn National’s plan for 760 horse stalls — 10 barns with 76 stalls each.

“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?” asked commission Chairman Robert Schmitz.

“ … A thousand stalls seems to be the benchmark for Ohio and you’re not hitting that number.”

To which Mark Loewe, Penn National’s vice president of racing operations in Ohio, replied, “We are in an area where we feel 760 stalls is a fair number to start the facility with.”

It is relevant that the racing date application submitted to commission calls for live racing from Nov. 1 to Dec. 20. Thus, we wonder what the state racing commission knows — that Penn National doesn’t — about the customers the racino will be attracting. Company officials have said they expect people living within a 50-mile radius to be drawn to the Austintown facility.

When the panel’s chairman, Schmitz, says that other tracks in Ohio have 1,000 stalls, how many of them have racing when its cold?

There’s no doubt that horse-racing enthusiasts in Ohio are looking to the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course to re-energize the industry in this state. The thoroughbred course will be the first new one in Ohio in 50 years.

But, Penn National, which operates more than 20 horse-racing and gambling facilities throughout the United States and Canada, knows its business.

When company officials say they do not believe that 1,000 stalls are needed immediately, what data does the racing commission have to challenge that assertion.

Additional expense

In addition, Penn National says that to increase the number of stalls would require an additional expense that is not budgeted.

“We would love to be able to build additional stalls, but we would have to do it within the budget constraints of the project,” said Bob Tenenbaum, company spokesman.

Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course should be open for business in mid-2014, if there are no impediments, such as the racing commission’s demand for a change in the plans.

This project is important to the region because of the number of construction jobs and the 1,000-plus permanent jobs that will be created.

On Tuesday, there was a ceremony on the site to put up the final steel beams. It was an occasion filled with optimism.

The Ohio Racing Commission should work with Penn National officials to find a solution to the horse-stalls problem. The project does not need to be hindered by disagreements over what is desired and what is realistic.

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