Testimony urges swift action on planned racino

AUSTINTOWN – As a large addition to St. Elizabeth Health Center in Boardman and V&M Star’s massive construction project in Youngstown begin to wind down, area trades crews had been planning to move soon into Austintown to begin construction at the Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course.

Instead, many now are looking for work in Pittsburgh, Don Crane, president of the Western Reserve Building Trades, told members of the Ohio legislature gathered Thursday for an informal hearing of the Senate Workforce and Economic Development Committee at Austintown Township Hall.

The more than $125 million racino project remains on hold after the Ohio Race Commission called the spectator seating plans submitted by track owner Penn National Gaming insufficient and refused to grant a license.

“The cool thing about this project is that we were hoping to roll off the V&M project, where they have been working the last two or three years,” Crane said. “As soon as these shovels hit the ground here, all of us started getting phone calls. Now they are going to be calling around to Pittsburgh or other big projects.”

The Senate committee held the special session here this week and one last week in Dayton, the site of another planned racetrack being held up for the same reason. The goal was largely to educate and help promote a compromise between Penn National and Ohio Race Commission members.

Testimony came from a local hotel and restaurant, a local Realtor, the Regional Chamber, elected officials, horsemen and even an Ellsworth Township trustee pointing out the agricultural gains the track would provide for local farmers who provide hay and grain for feed.

During his testimony, Crane noted that builders already had begun stockpiling necessary supplies.

“You gear up and build your warehouse knowing that there are going to be horse barns and stalls, offices with drywall, copper – there are a lot of materials I am quite certain have been prepared,” Crane said.

W. Randy Painter, project executive for construction manager Turner Construction Co., said his company is operating in a “suspension period.” He said they are not awarding contracts, but rather are working on things like soil and site preparation. The site work began here in late December and officials had hoped by now to be awarding contracts and starting construction.

Instead, Penn National Gaming spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said the company has sent its architects back to the drawing board to add about 650 climate-controlled seats to the 518 indoor seats they already had proposed. That, he said, will set the project back four to six months.

“We told them we think this is what the market supports. We would love to be proven wrong,” Tenenbaum said.

He said the company is willing to accept, as a condition of licensing, an agreement to revisit and increase seating numbers based on attendance after opening.

But three representatives of the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association offered testimony supporting not only increased seating but also additional horse stalls and jockey dormitories.

“If I were just a fan and I went to this proposed facility and I couldn’t get a sandwich and spread out my papers and watch the race, I am going to go home and watch the race,” said organization executive director Dave Basler.

Basler and Cleveland-area trainer Robin Schuster testified that the 500 horse stalls proposed for the track are also insufficient.

Schuster estimated that 320 horses will race each week. Because she said thoroughbreds race only once every two to four weeks, 500 stalls would be insufficient to house enough horses.

“I am confident we will have stall applications for over 2,000 horses. Ideally there would be 1,500 (stalls). We are saying 1,100 and think that is a reasonable number,” Basler said.

Both Basler and Tenenbaum said they doubt the horse stall issue will hold up the project, and said they are in negotiations to increase that to a more agreeable number.

Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, who attended the hearing, suggested that additions and changes can be made to the plans in the future.

“I would argue that the ‘perfect’ is becoming the enemy of the ‘good,'” Sawyer said. “I think this has enormous opportunity to begin.”

Following Thursday’s hearing, committee member and state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, said he planned to call the chairman of the Ohio Race Commission prior to next week’s race commission meeting to urge cooperation and compromise.

“It’s two groups that have different interests that are digging their heels in,” Schiavoni said.