Loacl and state officials are bending over backwards to give the company that will build and operate Toledo's new casino what it wants. Government will have to be just as aggressive in protecting the interests of taxpayers who are subsidizing the casino's extensive public infrastructure. So far, the signs aren't promising.
This month, the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commission approved the operator's proposal for the 44-acre casino site along the Maumee River in East Toledo, just north of Rossford. Penn National Gaming Inc. bought the land last December, a month after voters authorized casinos in Ohio.
State and local officials previously spent $2.9 million of public money to clean up and redevelop the former industrial site. The project will require other public upgrades: new traffic signals, expanded access to nearby I-75, and a widening of Miami Street in front of the casino.
Next week, City Council is expected to approve a plan to tear up a road, a storm-sewer line, and a public bicycle path that the city spent more than $1 million to build, to accommodate the two-story casino and its multideck parking garage. The company has pledged to reimburse the city for the cost of these improvements and to relocate and maintain the road.
Penn National offers no end of promises of big returns on the community's investment. Among them: The $250 million casino will create 2,000 construction jobs once ground is broken in the coming weeks, along with 1,200 permanent jobs when it opens in 2012. The company will comply fully with a new state law and pay $50 million in licensing fees to fund work-force development.
The casino will maintain public access to the riverfront. The bicycle trail will be rebuilt somewhere along the river. The company will monitor storm-water runoff on the site to maintain environmental quality.
The new casino will have abundant landscaping and other amenities. Parking for tour buses will be adequate. Emergency vehicles will not be impeded. And so on.
The experience of casinos in other cities suggests that it probably isn't a good idea to take such assurances on faith alone. Elected officials and regulators will have to remain vigilant to ensure that the developer lives up to its commitments on job creation, minority hiring and contracting, payment of taxes, fees, and other revenue, and environmental protection.
Will that happen? Just before state lawmakers adjourned last month for a long vacation, they enacted casino rules that appear to benefit the industry far more than Ohioans. Legislators specified, for example, that in calculating the required $250 million in initial on-site investment, casino operators could count such things as the cost of the slot machines they install. Not a boon to local business.
We remain skeptical that legal gambling will become the deliverance of Toledo's economy that its most ardent proponents claim. It seems unlikely that the casino will attract many visitors from communities such as Detroit, which have plenty of gambling options of their own.
More likely, we suspect, the new casino will mostly siphon off money that would have been spent in other local venues. And because the casino's parent company is based in Pennsylvania, much of that money inevitably will leave town.
For better or worse, though, the casino will be built. So local and state officials must start now to ensure that they make - and enforce - the best deal they can for their constituents.