Lawrence County leaders hope the next six weeks will yield what the previous 11 years have not -- a financier who will pay for construction of Valley View Downs, the racetrack and casino envisioned for the west side of New Castle, five miles from the Ohio border.
Developers say they're closer to a deal, but skeptics say they've heard it all before.
The new ownership group that controls development rights to the project, Endeka Entertainment, was granted a 45-day extension of a deadline to secure a commitment of at least $170 million to build the so-called racino, find a manager for the site and apply to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board for a casino license, something that will cost $50 million more.
In a Jan. 25 letter requesting the extension, attorney James A. Doherty III said Endeka has made "substantial progress" over the last week in lining up financing and satisfying other requests from the harness racing panel. Several Harrisburg sources said one of the potential financiers and operators is Penn National Gaming Inc., the Reading, Pa., casino company that operates racetracks across the United States.
Steven T. Snyder, senior vice president of corporate development at Penn National, said, "We're not in a position to comment on that," when asked if Penn National has been in talks with Endeka.
Endeka's 45-day extension, running through March 14, was issued Monday, and it followed a 60-day extension granted in November. Endeka principals could not be reached for comment.
"I look upon it as a positive," said Lawrence County Commissioner Dan Vogler. "The fact that they have granted an extension tells me that the commission continues to have confidence in Endeka's ability to bring this project to fruition."
If that confidence weren't there, "They could have pulled the plug."
In October, when the state Harness Racing Commission originally approved the transfer of Valley View Downs' ownership stock from the Pittsburgh-based American Harness Tracks to Philadelphia-based Endeka, the commission ordered that Endeka apply for a gaming license and furnish its financing commitment within 30 days.
It did not and it still hasn't -- which is why various lawmakers and developers have, from time to time, pushed the state Legislature to reopen the competition for the harness racing license, or to detach the casino license from the racetrack rights.
One such developer, mid-state motorcycle dealer David LeVan, is renewing that push, readying his own plan for a new casino project.
His previous proposals, both of which would have put a casino a few miles from downtown Gettysburg, were rebuffed because of their proximity to the Civil War battlefields. The new proposal would be farther away from Gettysburg, toward Hanover.
Others are likewise tired of the delays.
"I don't know why this thing keeps getting drawn out and kicked down the road," said state Sen. Rich Alloway, R-Adams, whose senate district includes Gettysburg. "Look, we have the casinos approved -- they should be put in use, and put in use where they get the biggest dollar amount. ... I don't get in the commission's business, but I do have those questions."
One gaming industry insider questioned why the Harness Racing Commission has given the Lawrence County project so much latitude -- and why the commission has been able to spend years on this project without the Legislature getting involved or shining any light on the process.
"It's amazing what these guys get away with," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk frankly about the harness commission. "It is clearly one of the most secretive processes, and nobody knows what's going on."
The letter to Endeka authorizing the extension, from commission executive director George Crawford, notes that the serial extensions "are discretionary and not unlimited."
But would the commission ever act on that discretionary authority?
The commission's chairman, Roy W. Wilt, is the project's top supporter on the three-man board. In 2011, he was the only member to vote to keep the Lawrence County project alive, voting to transfer the racetrack rights to American Harness Tracks LLC. Another commissioner, Richard Welsh recused himself over a conflict of interest, and the third board member, Noah Wenger, had not yet been appointed to the commission. Mr. Wilt is a former state legislator and a native of Mercer County, which is just to the north of Lawrence County.
This racetrack has been discussed in some shape or form since late 2002, when Valley View Downs first applied for a harness racing license, years before slot machines were legalized in Pennsylvania.
Endeka's primary investors are Philadelphia insurance executive Manuel Stamatakis, property developer Peter DePaul and Edward Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectacor, which owns the Philadelphia Flyers.
All three have tried to buy stakes in casinos previously, but none of those Philadelphia projects materialized.
If this one finally does, it will have to compete against a casino and racetrack being built just 20 miles away, in Austintown, Ohio, near Youngstown.
Once that casino is built, there will be at least six casinos within a two-hour drive of New Castle -- in Austintown; Cleveland; Wheeling, W.Va.,; Erie; Pittsburgh; and Washington County.
In other words, even if Endeka lines up the financing, Lawrence County is a much more competitive market than it was a decade ago, and it's not a slam dunk that the gaming board would approve the casino license or view the project as financially viable for the long term.
Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.