09/25/2002 11:00PM

Pennsylvania OK's Mountaineer plan

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Regulators in Pennsylvania approved on Thursday a $56 million project by Mountaineer Gaming Inc. to build a new Thoroughbred racetrack in Erie, against the objections of other tracks in the state.

The Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission voted unanimously to approve the new racetrack, a 130-acre project called Presque Isle Downs in far northwestern Pennsylvania. Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2004, Mountaineer officials said.

Officials of four other racetracks in the state argued against the new track, citing competition for the racing dollar and the current struggles of the racing industry in the state, according to racing officials who attended the meeting.

Though Mountaineer officials have insisted that the project will go forward no matter what happens, Mountaineer stands to capitalize on the potential for slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania. Both gubernatorial candidates have said they support slots at tracks. Supporters of slots believe that a bill legalizing the machines has a good chance of being passed this year or the next.

Erie is located midway between the borders of New York and Ohio, approximately 20 miles from each state.

Two racetracks in Erie have come and gone over the years, and Pennsylvania racing officials said Thursday that they doubted Mountaineer would go ahead with its plans if slots failed to pass in the next year.

"Two racetracks have already failed there, there's nobody there, and for some 30-odd years in the state the racing industry has been struggling to exist," one racing official said. "But at the same time, if you're the racing commission, and someone comes in and says they want to spend that kind of money, how are you going to argue against it?"