COLUMBUS -- The Ohio House Thursday gave Penn National Gaming, Inc., the green light to ask state regulators to move its Raceway Park racetrack license to the Youngstown area.
The bill doesn't specifically mention Penn or its Toledo racetrack, but Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon) said there's "very little doubt'' who the target is. Penn has already told the racing commission that, if racetrack slot machines become reality, it will seek permission to relocate Raceway Park to the Youngstown suburb of Austintown and its Beulah Park track from the Columbus suburbs to Dayton.
The gambling corporation contends that its two racetracks, presumably equipped with slot machines in the near future, would compete for the same gamblers with its two voter-approved casinos under construction on Toledo's riverfront and in Columbus.
"There are many in Toledo who feel that a promise, real or implied, given during the campaign has been broken,'' Mr. Szollosi said. "It's my understanding that three of Ohio's seven racetracks have been purchased within the last 17 months or so for a sum total approaching $130 million.
"Obviously, these investors are banking on state approval of video lottery terminals,'' he said. "I find it unfortunate that a Toledo tradition spanning six decades is on the brink of extinction based on speculation that slot machines will be the salvation for Ohio's budget woes.''
Raceway Park directly employs about 110 full and part-time workers. Penn has said it would give former track employees preference when filling jobs at the new Toledo casino, which is tentatively expected to open in April.
House Bill 277 passed the chamber by a bipartisan vote of 77-17 and now goes to the Senate. It was sponsored by Rep. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati), a long-time advocate for racetrack slots, and Rep. Ron Gerberry (D., Canfield), who represents Austintown.
"It is not specific,'' Mr. Gerberry said. "It could be other counties, but there's an opportunity that [the Mahoning Valley] could be one of those areas. We've stood up on this floor many times and we've supported Toledo, Columbus, [and] Cincinnati, and to be very honest, I'm asking you to support the Mahoning Valley.''
There was no support, however, from Toledo Thursday. All three lawmakers representing the city -- Mr. Szollosi, Rep. Teresa Fedor, and Rep. Michael Ashford -- voted against the bill.
The bill would open a two-year window for any track owner eligible to get a permit to operate slot machines to make its case to the Ohio State Racing Commission for a license transfer. Lawmakers authorized slot machines at racetracks two years ago, but the plan was derailed by a court challenge. The commission must act on the request.
The bill addresses the concern raised by House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina) that the transfer of permits for racetracks would require legislative approval.
"That language we did today takes care of the problem of location,'' he said.
In addition to the city's three lawmakers, "no'' votes from northwest Ohio included Reps. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), and Robert Sprague (R., Findlay). "Yes'' votes included Reps. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), Dennis Murray (D., Sandusky), and Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont).
Mr. Gardner said he was concerned by the bill's rapid pace, less than 24 hours between bill introduction and a House vote.
"I did not have an adequate opportunity to talk directly to people in northwest Ohio who had an interest in this, including the harness horsemen's association,'' he said. "Over the years, they've communicated with me on issues on the industry and survival of racetracks. I'm concerned that the way the law and rules are today, greater northwest Ohio may not be able to fairly compete to have a racetrack facility in future years.''
The creation of an eighth racetrack in Ohio would require legislative approval. Also, the deal that Gov. John Kasich struck recently with Penn and Rock Ohio Caesars, owner of developing casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati, appears to preclude the placement of another slots license in close proximity to the casinos.
Because the horse-racing industry has long contended slots are necessary to help tracks compete with similarly equipped tracks in other states, it appears unlikely a new racing-only facility would open in northwest Ohio without a slots license.
Penn spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said the firm has no timeline for the move.
"We have to see what the process is,'' he said. "Our goal is to wind up with racetracks in Youngstown and Dayton with [slots].''
Mr. Batchelder said additional votes are still necessary before any slot operations can open. Those votes will not happen until after lawmakers return from summer recess in September, he said.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 614-221-0496.