Advisers were paid plenty for non-functioning Valley View Downs
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The long-stalled Valley View Downs racetrack proposed for Lawrence County has never seen a gambler or hosted a harness race, but some of the current ownership firm's original principals -- and their relatives -- were paid handsomely for their work on the project.
Beginning in September 2010, Daryl W. Price, former Bridgeville bar owner, was given a contract that paid him $20,000 a month for "racing, entertainment and general services" consulting, according to paperwork filed with the state by American Harness Tracks LLC, the Pittsburgh company that now owns the rights to the harness racing track.
The contract with Mr. Price, onetime principal with the company, was executed shortly after the company was formed, and before American Harness had bought the rights to the racetrack's assets in federal bankruptcy court from Centaur Inc., the project's original developer.
Another company principal, Nicholas Geanopulos, longtime proprietor of Nicky's Grant Street Tavern, Downtown, and former lobbyist for Presque Isle Downs racetrack in Erie, also was being paid $20,000 a month for government lobbying work, starting in 2010.
Meanwhile, Aimee Marie Arneault-Vickers, who formerly did public relations work for Presque Isle Downs, and Patrick J. Arneault, brother to Edson "Ted" Arneault and also a former Presque Isle Downs official, have been paid tens of thousands in one-time consulting fees.
Ted Arneault, former CEO of West Virginia-based MTR Gaming Group (which owns Presque Isle Downs), was listed as a "member," or principal, of American Harness on the company's founding documents.
The existence of those consulting arrangements was part of the lode of documents furnished last week by the state Harness Racing Commission as a result of an open-records lawsuit filed by the Post-Gazette last year.
The contracts no longer appear to be in effect, as Mr. Price is no longer a principal of American Harness and Ted Arneault's role has been reduced as well. It's not unusual for principals to be put on the company payroll, be it a racetrack company or any other kind, though it is less common when a project is still in the development stages.
The Post-Gazette had been arguing for the release of certain American Harness Tracks financial records and operating agreements in Commonwealth Court after the state's Office of Open Records partially granted the newspaper's 2011 Right-To-Know request seeking records from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and its Harness Racing Commission.
After the newspaper's request was granted, American Harness appealed the Office of Open Records decision to the Commonwealth Court.
An argument on the matter had been scheduled for last week. Before that hearing could take place, American Harness dropped the appeal and agreed to allow the commission to hand over the documents, most of which are several years old.
The two attorneys who represented the company could not be reached for comment.
Also found in the documents:
• In an economic projection prepared in 2011, Pittsburgh's Consad Research Corp. said that the racetrack would have net revenues of $516 million in its first three years of operation.
n Kentucky-based Charles E. Coon and Sons Inc., a racetrack construction company, was retained last year to design and build the mile-long track.
The documents were furnished in the same week that an Ohio judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by an anti-gambling group, which had hoped to challenge the Buckeye state's authority to permit video slot machines at Ohio's seven racetracks. The dismissal of that lawsuit improves the odds that a racetrack will be built by Penn National Gaming in Austintown, Ohio, 20 miles from the proposed racetrack site in Lawrence County.
If a racetrack casino is built across the border in Ohio in the potentially lucrative Youngstown market, that would injure Valley View Downs' revenue projections.
Before it can open, though, the Pennsylvania project has to find financiers willing to leverage the cash -- probably $250 million or so -- needed to build. The current American Harness ownership group, now headed by board director Chuck Long, doesn't appear to have the money, and attempts to woo investors have so far been unsuccessful.
Mr. Long could not be reached for comment.
American Harness Tracks LLC won the rights to the troubled Valley View Downs project at Centaur's October 2010 bankruptcy auction, paying $5.6 million.
Since then, there has been little movement on the project, although last year the state Harness Racing Commission awarded the group a harness racing license, which gave American Harness Tracks the right to build the track and the right to subsequently apply for a casino license from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
The group has yet to apply for a casino license.
First Published June 12, 2012 12:00 am