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Published: Tuesday, 10/26/2010

New deal for casinos

CASINO owners promised Ohio a huge payout when they persuaded recession-weary voters to give them a gambling monopoly in the state a year ago. Now that they have an exclusive right to separate gamblers from their cash, they're slowly chipping away at the promised jackpot.

Penn National Gaming is developing the casinos that will be built in Toledo and Columbus. Quicken Loan owner Dan Gilbert is developing gambling sites in Cleveland and Cincinnati. When they promised to invest a minimum of $250 million at each site, voters likely thought the investment would be in jobs and local business.

But legislation approved by the General Assembly this year allowed the casino owners to include even the cost of slot machines as part of the $250 million investment. The legislation, signed by Gov. Ted Strickland in June, even allows gamblers an income tax deduction for losses on bets placed in Ohio and in other states. Governor Strickland estimated it would cost the state $30 to $40 million a year in tax revenue.

Now, according to the Columbus Dispatch, Penn National is thinking of asking Columbus to pay some of the freight for road and infrastructure work. The gaming company also is interested in property-tax breaks, water and sewer discounts, and help obtaining state and local grants and loan assistance.

That's a far cry from the position the company, which also owns Toledo Raceway Park, took on infrastructure improvements in September, 2009. Just weeks before the vote on a constitutional amendment to allow the four gambling establishments, Penn National spokesman Eric Schippers promised: "Any additional costs will be borne by us."

Penn National explained its Columbus reversal by saying the deal was good only for the original casino site. When Columbus officials wanted to move the casino, all bets were off. But Penn National apparently didn't mention that when the change of venue was sought.

Who's going to pay isn't the only red flag in Penn National's discussion list of incentives.

In Toledo, the developer consistently downplayed the notion that it would eventually want its own hotel. "We do not want to become an island unto ourselves," Mr. Schippers said last March. "We hope this will attract new growth with people staying at local hotels, going to local restaurants, and seeing other attractions."

But Penn National now has raised the possibility of building a hotel in Columbus. Can Toledo be far behind? Tourists staying at a casino hotel would be less likely to visit downtown to take in a ballgame, eat at a restaurant, or check out the club scene.

Casino owners are experts at stacking the odds in their favor. It's how they make their money. Is it any wonder that with each turn of the cards, the hand held by the casinos keeps getting better, while Ohio's pile of chips gets smaller?



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