Pa. and Ohio racetrack casino plans inch along

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As the assistant executive director of the Lawrence County Tourist Promotion Agency, it is Janet Falotico's job to get people to visit her county. It's a job that figures to become a degree easier if and when a racetrack casino opens to the west of New Castle, and perhaps easier still if yet another opens just across the state line, outside of Youngstown, Ohio.

Right now, neither would-be casino is much to look at.

The former strip mine in Lawrence County, at the intersection of U.S. Route 422 and state Route 551, is still a grassy field neighbored by farm homes and trailer parks. And 17 miles west as the crow flies, crews have turned the earth but done little else at an empty park adjacent to Interstate 80, a plot buffeted by hotels and restaurants.

But sometime in the next two years, if the stars remain aligned just so, both spots will be Penn National racetrack and casino properties. And the Youngstown-New Castle area, which has been pursuing one casino for more than a decade, will suddenly have two, a development that seemed unlikely -- if not impossible -- at the beginning of the year.

In Youngstown, Penn National had been dueling with the state over the design of its thoroughbred racetrack grandstand, a fight that halted construction at the 195-acre site. And in Pennsylvania, the project formerly known as Valley View Downs struggled for years to find financing and a development partner that could move the harness racing track out of the conceptual phase.

In recent months, though, Penn National Gaming is getting along better with the Ohio racing commission, and the May 30 groundbreaking boosted the odds that the Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course will open as planned in 2014.

A day later, May 31, the investment team behind the Lawrence County project announced it had struck a tentative deal with Penn National to build a $160 million casino and racetrack, rechristened Lawrence Downs Casino and Racing Resort.

"We've been preparing for years for this. We're getting our businesses ready," Ms. Falotico said. "Let's face it: Western Pennsylvania has not been on the A-list around the state for a long, long time. And the residents feel it."

In Lawrence County, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly stuck at 8 percent. In the Youngstown region, it's a bit lower at 7.7 percent, right at the U.S. rate. Each casino and racetrack will mean hundreds of new jobs for area residents, on top of the temporary construction jobs that will be created.

It's the residents who have been rooting for a casino the loudest, but it is the business community that may stand to benefit most. There are the usual suspects -- restaurants and hotels, both existing and unbuilt. But there are also some less obvious beneficiaries: farms, for example. All those horses need to feed, don't they?

"It's going to spur growth" of both the business and the agricultural variety, Ms. Falotico said.

The growth could come on both sides of the state line, said Eric Schippers, spokesman for Reading, Pa.-based Penn National.

As recently as January, the two casino projects appeared to be rivals, racing toward completion -- the construction of one would bode ill for the other. And when Penn National agreed last year to pay the state of Ohio a $75 million relocation fee and $50 million license fee to build a racetrack in Austintown, the prognosis seemed grim for Valley View Downs and its Philadelphia backers, known as Endeka Entertainment.

But in late January, word got out that Penn National was interested in the Lawrenceville property, too, believing two small casinos and racetracks could survive just miles apart.

"We are bullish on both projects," Mr. Schippers said. "There is a sufficient market to support both properties without them cannibalizing each other."

They'll draw from different regions -- Lawrence Downs from the south, Hollywood from parts north -- and they'll offer different experiences, too, since Lawrence Downs will allow smoking and table games, and Hollywood is permitted neither.

All of that has convinced Jim Ferrante, owner of a Wampum furnishings store and several area rental properties, that the casinos can coexist and be a boon for the region.

"We're the oldest borough in Lawrence County," he said. "We are trying to rejuvenate our small community." He hopes the new jobs will mean new people living in the rural outskirts of New Castle, and new people will mean new customers at gas stations, supermarkets -- and maybe even new tenants in his residential units.

"It's a wonderful opportunity," he said. "I think the same thing will happen here that happened in Washington County -- restaurants, hotels and all the support businesses."

Lawrence County should be so lucky. In North Strabane, where the casino side of the Meadows Racetrack & Casino has been in operation since 2007, the effect has been striking.

Tanger Outlets, the biggest retail center in Washington County, opened in 2008. New restaurants and hotels have opened along Racetrack Road every year since. Just last month, township commissioners in North Strabane gave a conditional go-ahead for The Street at the Meadows, a new commercial and residential complex, set to open next year. The corridor looks far different today than it did six years ago.

The visual effect might not be as striking in Austintown, which -- thanks to its proximity to Interstate 80 and the Ohio Turnpike -- is already densely developed.

But with hotel occupancy in Austintown and nearby Boardman already hitting 90 percent in peak months thanks to the nearby highways and natural gas drilling -- Downtown is usually around 65 percent, by way of comparison -- there is room for more development near the casino, said Tony Paglia, vice president of government and media affairs at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"It will be a learning experience for us," he said. "It's obviously a new type of business. ... That is a built-up area, [but] there is already a lot of talk about additional hotel space and other retail enterprises."

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Bill Toland: or 412-263-2625.


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