COLUMBUS - Indian tribes, casino operators, developers, racetrack owners, three big city mayors, and a handful of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle sat at one table yesterday in hopes of uniting behind one plan for casinos in Ohio.
In the end, they decided to poll Ohioans on what plan would be the best bet for approval.
"I was told that this was the first time all of those folks had ever sat in the same room and heard one another out," said Rep. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), the summit's organizer. "If we did nothing else today, we have at least accomplished that. Frankly, we accomplished, in my view, quite a bit more than that."
The group of about 70 people, which met for three hours behind closed doors at a private Columbus club, agreed to meet again once it has financed a poll determining the type of plan most attractive to voters.
Among those attending the meeting were the mayors of Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Lorain, all pursuing casinos for economic development.
"Ohio has had its share of problems in the past few years, and part of it is not recognizing trends that are going on around the nation," Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Lukens said. "Whether we like it or not, gambling is a reality."
All of Ohio's neighbors except Kentucky have approved some form of casino-style gaming.
House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) presented his own plan to the group. It would put seven licenses up for auction, with starting bids of $50 million each.
As currently drafted, there would be no guarantees that horse-racing tracks such as Toledo's Raceway Park, in the process of being purchased by riverboat casino operator Argosy Gaming Co., would get a license.
"Argosy, since they're already in the gambling business, would be interested in bidding on a license, and they could locate it at Raceway Park or Botkins if they chose to, assuming the local city councils and county commissioners would approve," Mr. Redfern said.
Gambling foes argued that casinos in Ohio would increase crime, gaming addiction, bankruptcy, suicide, and other ills.
Gov. Bob Taft and the major GOP gubernatorial candidates in 2006 - Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Attorney General Jim Petro, and Auditor Betty Montgomery - oppose casinos.
"Twice [the people] have said no [in 1990 and 1995] and they'll say no again," Ms. Montgomery said. "Their only intention is to give the impression that there's forward movement, that it's inevitable. We're all here to say it's not inevitable. We will fight this as long as we can fight."
The only major announced Democrat candidate, Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, opposes casinos for his city and central Ohio. However, his campaign spokesman, Greg Haas, said Mr. Coleman would be a skeptical but willing listener to proposals for areas of the state situated closer to legalized gambling in other states.
The Indian tribes believe they don't need voter support if they get federal recognition of a historical claim to a site in Ohio. But they came to the table anyway.
"We think that, under federal law, we can perhaps work together to come up with a plan that is beneficial to Ohioans as well as the tribe and all the other interests involved," said Betty Watson, chairman of National Capital 1, developer for the Oklahoma-based Eastern Shawnee tribe.
A tribe at a federally approved site could be allowed to operate any type of gambling permitted elsewhere in the state, with or without state approval.
"The legal hurdles that any Native American tribe would have to overcome to establish Las Vegas-style casino gambling in the state of Ohio are numerous and each of them is extremely time-consuming," said D. Michael Grodhaus, the Ohio attorney general's top assistant.
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