Austintown Racino Project Still in Limbo

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The push for a racetrack and casino in Austintown continued Wednesday as Penn National Gaming and the Ohio Horse Racing Commission met again in Columbus.

Penn National Gaming is looking to build the Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Racecourse in Austintown but has been met with several delays. Many of the problems surround the design of the facility, specifically racetrack seating and stable areas.

Penn National had submitted revised blueprints for those areas, but was asked by the racing commission to go back to the drawing board and revamp the plans. Those plans were re-submitted Wednesday before the commission and included additional seating, dormitories for jockeys and additional stalls in the stable area. With the updated plans, the seating at the proposed $125 million facility would be at 1,500.

“What you saw presented today was the maximum number of seats we think we can get in the facility in an enclosed space and future expansion plans should the market warrant that,” said Eric Schippers of Penn National Gaming.

The commission did not come to a conclusion at the meeting Wednesday, but said they will take the revised plans under advisement. Commission chairman Bob Schmitz said he hopes the board will have a decision next week for Penn National so they can move forward with the facility in Austintown as well as another project in Dayton.

“Hopefully with the compromise we’ve offered today this can be approved and then the domino pieces all fall into place. We get the shovels back in the ground, we get the construction crews, nearly 1,000 workers waiting to get back on the site, under way,” Schippers said.

But as with previous meetings between Penn National officials and the racing commission, there appeared to be a hitch as Penn executives squabbled with the commission chairman over the future of the company’s Beulah Downs near Columbus. The company has plans to host racing there this summer, but won’t post a schedule until commissioners approve the transfer of that track’s permit to Austintown.

“The racing that can be done by River Downs at Beulah Park really is, in our minds, inextricably intertwined with the overall question of the relocation of the race track,” Schippers said.

But Schmitz disagreed.

“I think that’s extraneous. That’s got nothing to do with racing River Downs at Beulah Park. I was frustrated with that,” he said.

At one point the discussion became so heated that Schmitz asked if Penn National executives were trying to hold the Columbus track “hostage.”

The byplay left local leaders visibly frustrated.

“There’s parts of the conversation where they’re making fun of each other there. They’re smiling at one another in a way that isn’t productive,” said State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman.

Township trustee Jim Davis also was at the meeting. Davis is anxious to see the project proceed saying the economic boost would not only affect Austintown but the entire area.

“It’s $1 million the first year for the township. It’s $1 million in the second year for the township and then $500,000 every year after,” said Davis. “Not to mention the thousands of jobs that it’s going to bring between the building of the racino and then the building of the local hotels and the spin-off businesses like restaurants and stores.”

Last week, Penn National sent a nine-page letter to the commission requesting the meeting Wednesday and asked the commission to reconsider its request to transfer a racing license from the Columbus area to Austintown.

“Every week this project gets delayed, it’s just another step backwards. We’re going in the wrong direction,” said Davis. “It potentially jeopardizes the project, in whole, so we obviously want to see a good outcome.”

Construction has been delayed at the site near the Route 46 and Interstate 680 interchange for several weeks.

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