On May 1, Penn National got approved for the transfer of its racino license from Beulah Park outside of Columbus to the new Hollywood Slots at the Mahoning Valley Race Course. The new track in Austintown will be moving forward this week with the hopes to come close to the proposed opening date released last year.
"We may be slightly delayed but we're hoping to move full steam ahead and get as close as possible to our mid-2014 opening target," said Eric Schippers, senior vice president for public affairs with Penn National Gaming.
It has been a long waiting game for Penn National as well as for Austintown Township. Trustee Jim Davis is one who knows the struggle. He has been involved for the past several months and has been present in Columbus for all seven meetings with the State Racing Commission. He said the meetings started on March 7.
"That is when the initial denial of permits was given by the Racing Commission," Davis said.
He said the big issue was over the number of seats. Penn National's original design called for 220 seats, but the Gaming Commission felt there should be more. Another issue involved the number of race barns and dorms for the jockeys to stay in.
At that first hearing, Davis and zoning inspector Darren Crivelli made the trip and Davis was able to offer testimony before the Racing Commission.
"I testified on March 7 regarding the economic development and jobs the racino would bring to [Austintown Township]," Davis said. "I urged [the commission] to come to a speedy resolution."
Over the next six meetings, which were all attended by Davis and Crivelli, the Racing Commision kept coming back with a different requirement regarding the seating. Davis said it went from 518 seats to 1,001 seats. The agreement ended up for 1,467 seats that would be done in phases.
Originally, Penn National offered a three-phase plan to start with 513 seats, then add an amount to bring the number to 1,001 under phase two, and finally up to 1,467 seats total in phase three. Phases two and three would be added when revenue and attendance hit certain benchmarks. Davis said at last week's meeting, the Racing Commission wanted phases one and two completed now.
"Instead of a staggered, phased approach, we will be building out phase one and two right from the start and will be opening with 1,001 seats with views of the track for racing fans," Schippers said.
That agreement, along with an agreement with the horsemen's associations regarding the barns and number of dorms for the jockeys, was all it took to get approval of the license transfer.
The agreement, according to Davis, also included the Beulah Park race track. He said another raceway wanted to use the track, but Penn National was not scheduling any racing there while awaiting the decision on the license transfer. Part of the agreement was to permit the racing at Beulah Park.
While awaiting the decision on the transfer, Penn National had started to clear the land off Ohio 46. Now with the transfer in place, construction can begin.
Schippers said the support of Austintown Township for the racino has been a big plus in Penn Nationals decision to build the new track here.
"Austintown Township rolled out the red carpet for us from day one and have stood behind us throughout this development project," he said. "We couldn't be happier with the support we've received from our host community, which goes above and beyond what many other communities would have done.We sincerely appreciate all the support we've received from the township throughout this very difficult process. I think it meant a lot to show the support of the local community for this economic development project. I'd like to particularly thank Jim Davis and Darren Crivelli for standing alongside us at every commission meeting."
Davis said it all came down to serving the residents of the township. He said when the Racing Commission approved the transfer, he got more than 200 calls and emails congratulating both Penn National and the township.
"We are public servants and we served our community by fighting for this," Davis said. "People have looked at the Mahoning Valley as a place where projects go to die. We are now back on the map after pulling up our boot straps and getting back on track."
Davis said the success of this project will open the doors for more projects in the area such as the retail entities looking to build at the old AMS site on Mahoning Avenue.
"If we didn't stand and fight side-by-side with Penn National, they could have walked away," Davis said. "Our support made them want to come here."