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Casino plan fancies site on Toledo riverfront

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COLUMBUS - If voters are ready to roll the dice on Las Vegas-style gambling, 44 acres of reclaimed former industrial land along Toledo's riverfront could become home to one of four Ohio casinos.

Penn National Gaming, the owner of Toledo's Raceway Park, and Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, yesterday submitted a proposed constitutional amendment to Attorney General Richard Cordray for casinos in Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

That's the first step in the petition process to put the question on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Penn National has an option to buy for an undisclosed price the former glass-making site of Libbey-Owens-Ford and Pilkington North America along the Maumee River. The deal with Middletown-based owner River Road Developments is predicated upon voters breaking their pattern of routinely rejecting legalized casino-style gaming.

The four casino sites are explicitly described in the proposed constitutional language. Developers would be required to make minimum $250 million investments at each site. In addition to developing the Toledo site, a portion of which abuts Rossford, Penn National would develop a casino in downtown Columbus on an 18-acre site near Nationwide Arena.

Mr. Gilbert, who founded Cleveland-based Quicken Loans, would develop a casino on a 62-acre site along the Cuyahoga River as well as in a 20-acre downtown Cincinnati parking area known as Broadway Commons.

"We've done a tremendous amount of research on the issue of gambling in Ohio," Penn National spokesman Eric Schippers said. "We've found that Ohioans want to see casinos as part of urban renewal and revitalization of downtown areas."

In addition to the total $1 billion in private investment, backers predict the effort would lead to $200 million in one-time licensing fees for state job training and work-force development projects. They predict the casinos would create 20,000 jobs as well as generate $600 million a year - mostly for counties, cities, and schools - from a 33 percent tax on an estimated total of $1.8 billion a year in casino gross revenue.

"The governor continues to believe gambling is not the right economic development approach for Ohio," said Amanda Wurst, spokesman for Gov. Ted Strickland. "This proposal appears to be similar to recent casino initiatives that the governor has opposed."

She said Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher agrees. He recently stepped down as state development director to run for the U.S. Senate.

Ohio voters repeatedly have rejected efforts to bring casino gambling to the state.

Last year, voters said "no" to a plan that would have authorized one $600 million casino resort in rural southwestern Ohio.

Penn National, which also owns the Argosy casino just over the Indiana border, bankrolled the effort to kill the potential competitor. Now it's back with a proposal that would give it 50 percent of the action.

To make the ballot, backers of the proposal must file at least 403,000 valid signatures of registered voters by July 1.

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said he will work to convince voters to support the ballot issue. He noted that, in addition to the up-front development investment, the casinos would generate a $30 million annual payment to Toledo's coffers.

"As a community on the water, Toledo is in an outstanding position to add to our entertainment value with an attractive casino facility and campus," the mayor said.

City Council President Mark Sobczak added, "I've long said that casino gambling is part of the solution to bringing folks to our waterfront."

George Sarantou, chairman of council's budget committee, said a well-run casino would keep in Toledo money that is being spent now in Detroit and Windsor, Ont.

At-large City Councilman Frank Szollosi, however, said the casino would siphon more money from the community than it would add.

"It really bothers me that, in a time of economic strife, the mayor of the city of Toledo would allow folks from outside to come in and prey on everyone's insecurity like this," he said.

Ohio Roundtable President David Zanotti, an ardent gambling opponent, said voters would be placing a sucker's bet if they believe casinos are the answer to the state's worsening economic problems.

"The casino industry is dying across the country," he said. "[Donald] Trump's bankrupt. Places in Vegas are dropping like flies. They're counting on an industry that is seriously deteriorating to create growth."

Unlike last year's proposal that called for a destination resort complete with a casino, hotel, conference center, spa, theater, and restaurants, Penn National's development plans focus on the casinos.

"We do not want to become an island unto ourselves," Mr. Schippers said. "We hope this will attract new growth with people staying at local hotels, going to local restaurants, and seeing other attractions."

River Road's president, Brad White, said a casino was not what he had in mind when his venture gambled on buying contaminated riverfront property and cleaning it up with the help of the Ohio Department of Development and the city.

"We were thinking residential hotels and apartment buildings," he said. '

He said he was contacted after Penn National toured potential sites with Mr. Finkbeiner.

According to Lucas County auditor records, the property was sold to the River Road firm in 2006 for $565,000. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency this week announced that the site, which is zoned for commercial and multifamily residential development, meets state standards for redevelopment.

"If this goes to voters and they support it, I will do what I can to see it's successful in Toledo," state Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) said. "I don't have any opposition to casino gambling. We already have casino gambling in Toledo. It's called Detroit. It's clear people are leaving the community to go up there to gamble."

Rossford may want to be dealt into the game if voters open the door to casino gambling.

The Wood County city has more than 600 acres of commercial land in the Crossroads of America district with zoning suitable for a casino, said Edward Ciecka, Rossford administrator. The acreage, owned by various developers, is near both I-75 and the Ohio Turnpike.

Adding Rossford to the mix, however, would require another constitutional amendment.

The Rev. Tony Scott, pastor of the Church on Strayer in Monclova Township, said opponents must launch a "major offensive."

"It is of great concern to me as a spiritual leader in the community because casinos have a devastating effect on an area," he said.

"The gambling part is something I'm concerned about Biblically, but there are practical reasons to oppose casinos. The crime rate goes up, and it increases poverty in the lower socioeconomic groups."

The Rev. Robert Ball of Rossford United Methodist Church said he had eyed the proposed site for Toledo's casino.

"I thought it would be a wonderful place for a church, but the only problem is the casino people have more money than we have," he said.

Staff writers Tom Troy, David Yonke, and Julie McKinnon contributed to this report.

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