01/18/2011 4:19PM

Group proposes $300 million Thoroughbred track and casino in Ohio


A group of investors is prepared to spend $300 million to build a new Thoroughbred racetrack and casino resort in northeastern Ohio, representatives of the investment group said in a news release issued Monday, but it was unclear if the group was serious about going forward without the ability to operate slot machines or other types of casino games.

The group, Mahoning Valley Development Group, said Monday that it would build a racetrack surrounded by a hotel, retail spaces, a golf course, and entertainment facilities on 200 acres of land near Youngstown, Ohio, which is near the border with Pennsylvania. Although several reports quoted representatives of the group as saying that they would go ahead with the project with or without the ability to operate slot machines, racing officials in the state said Tuesday that they had doubts that the developers would break ground without reasonable certainty that slot machines would be allowed at Ohio racetracks.

Representatives of the investors did not return phone calls Tuesday, when the group held a press conference in Youngstown to discuss the project. The press release identified Dr. Bradford Pressman and Rick Lertzman as the representatives of the unnamed investors. The men had led an unsuccessful effort to get a referendum passed in 2008 that would have allowed a casino in Wilmington.

The state legislature approved slot machines at racetracks in 2009 on a directive from former Gov. Ted Strickland, but the decision was challenged in court by a group that said the legislature overstepped its authority. The Ohio Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling on the case, and Gov. John Kasich, who took office this year, has said that the state would need to study the impact of slot machines at racetracks before he would decide to press the issue either way.

Ohio has four Standardbred tracks and three Thoroughbred tracks, and all have struggled for a decade due to horse racing’s declining popularity and competition from casino gambling in other states. In the past year, casino gambling companies have purchased all three Ohio Thoroughbred tracks, in part to protect their existing casino properties and to capitalize on any further expansion of gambling in the state.

Ohio voters approved four stand-alone casinos in 2009, and those casinos are expected to open in 2012. Penn National Gaming Inc. received approval for two of the casinos; the company purchased Beulah Park in Columbus after the referendum was successful.

If the Mahoney Valley group is serious about pursuing the project, it would need to be licensed by the Ohio State Racing Commission and receive approval from 51 percent of the eligible voters in Youngstown to hold a race meet in the city, according to Tom Fries, executive director of the commission.

Fries said that representatives of Mahoney Valley contacted the commission Friday to set up a meeting to discuss the project. The meeting has not yet been scheduled, Fries said.

“We’d obviously do our due diligence,” Fries said after being asked what criteria the commission would use to determine if a new track should receive a license. “The racing industry in Ohio is struggling, and we would take into account that larger economic picture.”