WITH sleight of hand worthy of a Las Vegas magic act, Penn National Gaming has transformed Toledo's belief that Raceway Park would remain part of the local landscape into a promise only that the harness racing track will remain open - somewhere in Ohio.
Toledo City Council member Lindsay Webb says she feels used. So should every Ohioan who voted to gamble on the future.
Fifteen months ago, Penn National sought City Council and voter support for a state constitutional amendment granting it, among other things, exclusive rights to build a casino in Toledo. Company executive Eric Schippers told council members the racetrack was completing "a banner year" and his bosses had "no plans to close Raceway Park." The track and casino wouldn't compete, he said, because "the slots player, the table games player, and the racing player are really different customers."
That was then. Now Penn National says it may move Raceway Park out of concern that "the Toledo market would not be large enough to support two gaming opportunities." And that "banner year"? Turns out it was a $1.2 million loss.
When Jerry Chabler, a Toledoan and then a member of the state racing commission, demanded a "flat-out commitment" that Penn National would keep Raceway Park's 120 workers on the job if voters approved the local casino, he thought he got it.
Now all the company will promise is that if Raceway is moved, the workers will get preference for casino jobs. And now it appears that what area voters thought was a promise of 1,200 new full-time jobs at the Toledo casino might include 100 or more workers who could be transferred from the harness track.
Penn National didn't lie, exactly. Rather, company officials made vows in the heat of passion that could - and did - take on a different meaning in the cold light of day. They did not compromise Toledo's virtue so much as voters exchanged the city's virtue for promises so easily reinterpreted.
Penn National already has sought concessions from Columbus, the site of its other Ohio casino. A recent Blade report suggested that the economic boom Toledo voters were assured of before the November, 2009, casino vote might be considerably smaller than promised as well.
So this latest development isn't a surprise. But it does remind Toledoans that the glittering promises they've heard about the casino invite a big dose of skepticism.
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