New name, new application for Lawrence County racino

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Valley View Downs is officially dead but its successor, Lawrence Downs Casino and Racing Resort, is alive and kicking now that its owners and would-be operators have applied for the state's permission to build a casino in Lawrence County.

Penn National Gaming and Philadelphia-based investment group Endeka Entertainment applied to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board for a casino license, submitting paperwork late Friday afternoon.

The two companies, now partners, want to build a $160 million harness racing track and casino just to the west of New Castle.

If the plan is carried to fruition, Penn National would be a minority partner in the renamed Lawrence Downs operation and would have two casinos within a few miles of each other, as the nation's largest racetrack gaming operator last month broke ground on a casino near Youngstown, Ohio, about 20 miles from the would-be Lawrence County casino.

Both casinos would be small -- the one in Lawrence County would have about 1,250 slot machines and 40 table games, while the Ohio track would have 1,500 "video lottery terminals" -- but combined, the two casinos would have nearly 3,000 slots and would, in theory, lock down the middle stretch of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

They'll also have to lock down two separate racing schedules with two different sets of riders and horses -- Lawrence Downs is a harness racing track, while the $125 million Mahoning Valley course is to be a thoroughbred track.

And as of right now, Endeka and Penn National don't yet have an agreement in place with either the Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen's Association or the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association.

Endeka's harness license, issued last year, was conditional upon "a live racing agreement with a recognized horsemen's group presently operating in the harness racing industry" within the state, among other considerations.

The Penn National team believes that particular condition puts the cart before the horse, so to speak, because the state's 2004 gaming law defines a horsemen's group as "a trade association which represents the majority of owners and trainers who own and race horses at a licensed racetrack."

Because the track doesn't exist yet, there's no way to know which of the two groups will represent a majority of owners.

"Endeka Entertainment is pleased [to] bring this economic development project to Lawrence County as it will generate a significant number of new local jobs and other benefits," said Manuel Stamatakis, one of the primary investors in Endeka, which bought the rights to the racetrack project when its predecessor, Pittsburgh's American Harness Tracks, backed out.

Because Penn National owns and operates Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pa., near Harrisburg, under Pennsylvania law, the company can own no more than a third of the proposed Lawrence County casino.

In the press release issued last week, Penn National said it would put up the $50 million needed to secure the state's casino license. It will also develop and run the property.

Gaming and Leisure Properties Inc., Penn National's newly created real estate investment trust, will eventually purchase the racetrack casino facility and lease it back to the ownership team, the press release said.

Penn National has a "long-standing commitment to the growth of horse-racing in Pennsylvania and the proposed Lawrence Downs Casino and Racing Resort is a clear indication of our belief in the industry's future," Tim Wilmott, Penn National's president and chief operating officer, said in a statement.

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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