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Penn breaks ground for E. Toledo casino

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From left, Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken, Eric Schippers and Tim Wilmont of Penn National, Mayor Mike Bell and Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat break ground at the Miami Street site of the new Hollywood Casino.

The Blade/Amy Voigt
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Hooray for hollywood

Tucked in among the state and local dignitaries celebrating the $250 million casino that will soon be taking shape in East Toledo, Ginny Birkenkamp and George Maxon sat and watched the festivities Thursday with smiles.

The South Toledo retirees count themselves among the future customers of Hollywood Casino Toledo - a 290,000-square-foot complex that is to have 2,000 slot machines, 60 table games, and a 20-table poker room.

"We're not big heavy gamblers," Ms. Birkenkamp explained. "We don't like to lose a lot and we don't win a lot, but we do frequent casinos when we travel."

Mr. Maxon said they have visited a Hollywood Casino and liked it.

"We like them all - if we can come out smiling," he said.

Penn National Gaming, Inc., which also owns Raceway Park, turned the first shovel of dirt Thursday at the former industrial site on Miami Street just west of I-75, marking the start of a nearly two-year construction project.

The casino will be the first of four planned in Ohio after voters approved a constitutional amendment in November, 2009, to authorize casinos in Toledo, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.

Penn National President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Wilmott said the project is expected to create 2,100 construction jobs in the short term and 1,200 permanent jobs when the casino opens in the first half of 2012.

"This is really the first day if you'll listen very, very clearly, you'll hear that sucking sound of business starting to come back from Detroit," Mr. Wilmott told a tent packed with supporters from government, business, and labor.

The casino will feature a 1930s Art Deco Hollywood theme similar to Penn National's Hollywood Casinos in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, West Virginia, and Illinois.

The company plans to break ground early next year on Hollywood Casino Columbus.

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell said the 24-hour casino is a badly needed shot in the arm for northwest Ohio.

"We have to start working together because if we don't fix this ship here, we're all going to sink, and Penn National has given us a life preserver," Mr. Bell said. "They've given us the opportunity to be able to move forward in a direction that will create jobs, that will make people once again feel proud about what they're doing, and they'll be able to feed their families, they'll be able to shelter themselves, they'll be able to spend money in our city, and that is so important."

The mayor happily accepted a check for $1,038,613 from Wyomissing, Pa.-based Penn National - reimbursement for street and utility improvements that the city has made at the site.

Steve Herwat, Toledo's deputy mayor of operations, said afterward that $654,000 of that amount had come out of the capital improvement fund but would be rerouted to the city's general fund to help balance the 2010 budget. The remainder would go back to the water and sewer fund.

Penn National officials said the riverfront casino is projected to generate $25.3 million in annual tax revenue for Toledo, Lucas County, and the school districts in Lucas County.

Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener was among the area officials who cheered on the development Thursday.

"I couldn't be more excited," he said. "Anything that helps the region, and this will be extremely beneficial to the whole region."

Mr. Wilmott credited former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner with being "the first mayor in the state of Ohio to say 'I want this to happen in the community.'•"

Mr. Finkbeiner said afterward that he didn't view a casino as an economic life preserver, but as an important way to capitalize on Toledo's riverfront.

"I felt like it was time for us to take one more step forward with an alternative form of entertainment and economic development," he said. "It's not the answer, but it's another option."

Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken predicted the casino would "change the fabric" of Toledo much like two other significant projects did - the $1.2 billion Jeep plant and the $105 million arena in downtown Toledo.

"This is a game changer. We're happy to have the partnership," Mr. Gerken said.

Penn National has promised to hire at least 90 percent of its work force from metropolitan Toledo. Mr. Wilmott said he anticipates applications will be accepted beginning in the summer of 2011.

Persons interested in jobs at the new casino may register for employment announcements at www.hollywoodcasino-toledo.com.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.

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