COLUMBUS -- Two and a half years after recession-weary Ohio voters decided to roll the dice with Las Vegas-style casino gambling on the Maumee River shore, state regulators Wednesday formally approved a license for Hollywood Casino Toledo.
The 250,000-square-foot building is already up on the reclaimed industrial land off I-75 abutting Rossford. Many of the employees are already inside. The owner has invested $320 million in the structure, more than 2,000 slot machines, some 80 table games, and a $50 million one-time state license fee.
So it should have come as little surprise that the Ohio Casino Control Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to give Penn National Gaming, Inc., just the second casino gambling license ever issued in the state.
Penn is gearing up for a May 29 grand opening, 15 days after Ohio's first casino, Rock Ohio Caesar's Horseshoe Casino, is expected to open in downtown Cleveland.
Licenses were approved both for Penn and its subsidiary, Toledo Gaming Ventures, LLC, which will operate the Toledo casino, despite a last-minute issue placed in the commissioners' laps. On Friday, Penn informed the commission that it was about to pay $610 million for Harrah's St. Louis casino and a 500-room hotel on the Missouri River in St. Louis, a deal announced two days after the commission's consultant had formally recommended licensing Penn based on its finances at the time.
A look at the numbers at Hollywood Casino Toledo.
"We were somewhat surprised to be informed about this obviously between our Wednesday meeting and Friday, but I understand you did not get board approval to move ahead with this until Thursday," commission Chairman Jo Ann Davidson told Tim Wilmott, Penn's president and chief operating officer.
The St. Louis deal involves Penn borrowing $700 million, contributing to total debt of $2.7 billion. A company's finances are among the factors considered when gambling operator licenses are issued.
Mr. Wilmott assured the commission that the deal will not adversely affect its commitment for or management teams at Toledo or its second Ohio casino expected to open this fall in Columbus. Rather, Penn presented the acquisition as further evidence of the growing company's health.
"[It's] still a very conservative balance sheet," he said. "There's a lot of cushion to handle any uncertainties out there in the economy."
The acquisition of the 15-year-old St. Louis casino is expected to be finalized in four to six months.
"We view the St. Louis market to be very stable both politically and also from a competitive standpoint," Mr. Wilmott said. "There have been some new entrants into the market in the last two or three years, but there is no new competition coming in the foreseeable future.
"It is our intention to take the Harrah's name off of the property and rebrand the property to our signature Hollywood brand," he said.
Although the constitutional amendment approved by Ohio voters in 2009 authorized casino gambling in the state and on this 44-acre Toledo parcel in particular, it did not guarantee that the parcel's owners would get casino licenses.
Still, Wednesday's decision was largely considered a formality despite some criticism of the honesty of an investment firm that holds a small piece of Penn.
Penn began with a single racetrack in eastern Pennsylvania and has since become a major player in casino gambling with its Hollywood Casino brand. It acquired Argosy Gaming, which gave it a major foothold in the Midwest and whose holdings included Raceway Park in Toledo.
The harness-racing track gave Penn a seat at the table in Ohio as a variety of efforts to legalize slot machines at racetracks and full-scale, 24-hour Las Vegas-style casinos came and failed. Voters finally approved four casinos on specific sites in Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati in 2009.
If the courts uphold Ohio's plans to legalize racetrack slots parlors as an extension of the Ohio Lottery without a vote for the people, Penn plans to move Raceway Park to Dayton to get the track's expected slots operation out of the shadow of its new Toledo casino.
Hollywood Casino Toledo claims to have created 2,291 temporary construction jobs and 1,329 permanent jobs, paying an average of $40,000 a year including wages, tips, and benefits.
The latest Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday showed that 62 percent of Ohio's registered voters believe that the state's uncharted foray into casino gambling will be good for the state.
"Democrats say 69 to 24 percent, Republicans say 54 to 40 percent, and independent voters say 63 to 26 percent that casinos are an odds-on bet to help the state," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
But while they expect the state to benefit economically, a similar 62 percent said they don't expect to play themselves. According to the poll, 37 percent of women and 39 percent of men say they are "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to visit one of the four casinos.
The commission has tentatively set May 24 for Hollywood Casino Toledo's "controlled demonstration," an invitation-only event that attempts to create as closely as possible game-day conditions on the casino floor to test drive the controls regulators and the casino have worked for months to create.
Penn's license approval came even as lawmakers continue to scramble to enact a law to write between the lines of the constitutional amendment approving the four casinos, as well as state law authorizing up to 17,500 slot machines at seven racetracks. The bill also touches on bingo, charitable gaming, and the Ohio Lottery.
The House Wednesday refused to accept changes the Senate made a short time earlier to House Bill 386. That sets up a conference committee to work out a compromise. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati), called the measure "very comprehensive and complex" and in need of another week or two of review.
That guarantees that Cleveland's Horseshoe Casino will be in full operation before the final legislative pieces are put in place.
The Senate voted 29-3 in favor of its version after stripping out its own controversial language to allow each of Ohio's 88 counties to designate a single privately run card room using paid dealers to run poker, blackjack, and other card tournaments for charities.
All four senators representing northwest Ohio -- Sens. Edna Brown (D., Toledo), Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), Cliff Hite (R., Findlay), and David Burke (R., Marysville) -- supported the bill.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.