Racino back on track

AUSTINTOWN – Construction contracts may need to be rebid and skilled trades workers will have to be tracked down at other projects, but officials are anticipating no further delays at the planned Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Racecourse.

At its sixth meeting since March 12 involving racetrack owner Penn National Gaming, the Ohio Race Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the license transfer from Beulah Park in Grove City to Austintown. The vote came following a compromise struck on the number of indoor seats needed at the racetrack.

The approval puts the facility back in line to hit its planned mid-2014 opening on the 190 acres near the intersection of Interstate 80 and state Route 46 in Austintown. Approval came after weeks of debate over the number of spectator seats solved with compromises by both the race commission and Penn National.

The race commission also gave approval for Penn National to complete a similar track relocation to Dayton.

“We just need to get everyone remobilized,” said D. Eric Schippers, Penn National senior vice president of public affairs. He expects work to ramp back up in a matter of days and puts the track back on line to hit the projected mid-2014 opening.

While the compromise does slightly increase Penn National’s investment, Schippers said it was a small price to pay to ensure comfort of the spectators and the company’s return on investment.

Penn National had most recently proposed 513 indoor track seating with plans to add more seats in phases 2 and 3, if the need was warranted. The race commission, however, had been insisting on closer to 1,400 spectator seats.

In the end, the sides agreed Wednesday on 1,001 indoor seats with potential to add 466 more seats if attendance figures demand. The sides will agree on criteria that will be used to determine when and if those seats become warranted.

The proposal does not include outdoor seating, largely because it is anticipated that the race season for this track will be October to March.

The license transfer resolution approved for both parks includes requirements that Penn National certify by June 15 that its new buildings will open seating with views of live racing for more than 1,000 seats at each facility.

“We are so appreciative of what Penn Gaming is going to do to help our communities and help further the interests of horse-racing in Ohio,” said Race Commissioner Mark Munroe from Mahoning County. “I think, with the adoption of this resolution., we’ve got a good path forward to bring about a new era in horse-racing in Ohio.”

It appears the next step in securing operating licenses should move forward more smoothly. Danielle Frizzi-Babb, spokeswoman for the Ohio Lottery Commission, said now that the race commission has given its approval, the lottery commission will begin review of the application for video lottery terminals, similar to slot machines, at the site.

“The racing commission had to approve the movement of the track first. Now that they have done that, we will be able to start the review of their application,” Frizzi-Babb said, noting that she does not anticipate any problems in the approval process.

If approved, Penn National will pay $50 million in video lottery terminal licensing fees which will cover operations for the first three years.

That is in addition to the $75 million the company is paying to relocate its thoroughbred racetrack license to Austintown and the $125 million it expects to invest in construction.

Austintown Township will collect $1 million each year for two years from the license transfer fee. Half of that money must be used for infrastructure or other capital expenditures, said Austintown Township Trustee Jim Davis, who attended all six of the race commission meetings in Columbus when the racetrack was discussed.

“Now the board of trustees can sit down and look at these infrastructure projects,” Davis said, noting it could mean things like flood prevention, road improvements or emergency response vehicles. He said the trustees also may consider adding personnel in the areas of fire, police or zoning.

“We will do our due diligence,” Davis said.

Both Tenenbaum and Schippers praised the trustees and other officials for getting the deal done.

“We’re particularly grateful to the public officials and community leaders in Austintown and the Mahoning Valley for their strong support throughout this process,” Tenenbaum said.