Plans for an Austintown thoroughbred racetrack and video lottery terminal were being laid long before anyone even knew it.
Standing before more than 100 community officials and dignitaries under a large white tent just south of the Interstate 80 interchange for a ceremonial groundbreaking of Hollywood at Mahoning Valley Race Course on Thursday afternoon, Austintown Township Trustee Jim Davis took a moment to thank trustees who served decades ago.
It was those officials, Davis said, who had enough foresight in the early 1990s to create an enterprise zone for acreage that came to be marketed as CenterPointe Business Park.
In the early 2000s, local elected officials successfully argued to mitigate wetlands in the area to allow for economic development, and in 2009, passage of a state constitutional amendment creating casinos in four other parts of Ohio set the foundation for racetrack operator Penn National Gaming to consider moving its thoroughbred track to the Mahoning Valley.
As a result of those early actions, Penn National will invest $250 million in Ohio and the Mahoning Valley, including the $125 million construction project and $125 million in state licensing fees. That includes $50 million to the Ohio Lottery Commission for licenses allowing it to operate video lottery terminals - comparable to slot machines - and another $75 million to transfer its thoroughbred racetrack license from the Columbus area to Austintown.
The company, billed as the nation's largest regional casino and pari-mutuel race track operator, is making a similar investment in Dayton, where ground was also broken Thursday.
This artist rendering depicts the future Hollywood at Mahoning Valley Race Course planned for state Route 46 in Austintown.
Special to the Tribune Chronicle
During his remarks before the official groundbreaking, Penn National president and COO Tim Wilmott, vowed to do everything they can to "purchase, hire and spend here locally."
"The jobs and business opportunities we'll be creating here, the tax revenues that will begin flowing, and the boost the facility will bring to the tourism, hospitality and retail industries in the Valley will have a long-lasting beneficial impact on this community and this region," Wilmott said.
Davis, described by one Penn National official as "the Energizer Bunny," showed his excitement as he took the stage and held his cell phone up to the microphone to play the official bugle call of thoroughbreds to the post.
"I was driving here today an I got goose bumps thinking about it," Davis said. "Austintown has finally got its piece of the puzzle. It's finally found its niche. It's going to be the hot spot in the community. It's going to be where people gather."
The jubilance demonstrated by the string of speakers and the overflow crowd at Thursday's celebration was a far cry from the frustrations felt in recent months when disputes with the Ohio Race Commission over the number of racetrack spectator seats threatened the future of the track.
A series of six meetings in Columbus and repeated revamps of the company's seating plans finally culminated earlier this month when the sides compromised on 1,001 climate-controlled seats with promises to increase the capacity if the need is warranted.
The design calls for indoor seating because it is expected that the Austintown track will retain the same winter race schedule as the previous schedule at Beulah Park near Columbus. That won't be confirmed until the Ohio race schedule is released later this year.
Far in the distance, behind speakers who took the stage and subsequently picked up shiny shovels to turn the dirt Thursday, excavators and earth movers were continuing their work preparing the 190-acre site for construction.
Don Crane, president of the Western Reserve Building Trades, said delays in the license approval caused little trouble in getting skilled trades workers back on line and ready for the project. Today, he said, about 20 workers were on the job. At its peak, he expects 500 to 600 at any one time. In all, more than 1,000 skilled laborers will work on the project expected to wrap up in mid-2014.
After that, about 1,000 permanent direct and indirect workers will be hired. Penn National will hire food and beverage workers; maintenance and housekeeping; valets; security; racing operations; and video lottery terminal technicians, most of them full-time, said company spokesman Bob Tenenbaum.
Tenenbaum said most hiring will be done three to four months before opening. The company will launch a website in coming months that will include online applications and details on the hiring process.
Township zoning inspector Darren Crivelli, who recently considered but opted against taking a new zoning position in Boardman, said it is an exciting time in Austintown.
Along with the racino, more growth and development is expected. Already two new hotels in the area of the state Route 46 / Interstate 80 interchange have been working with his department. Candlewood Suites and Home 2 Suites by Hilton have been meeting with Crivelli, expected to bring a more than $12 million investment to the area.
About half of the local tax dollars created by the Penn National project will be set aside in tax increment financing, or a TIF, program. That allows Mahoning County to spend those funds only on infrastructure improvements for the racetrack site and in the nearby Austintown corridor. Mahoning commissioner and former long-time Austintown Trustee Dave Ditzler said the program will dedicate about $8 million for local infrastructure improvements over the next seven years.
"About $1.5 million will be directly related to the Penn National project, and that gives us $7 million to use for other local projects," Ditzler said.
About half of the project, or $60 million, is being financed locally through a capital lease project at the Western Reserve Port Authority.