03/31/2006 1:00AM

Pennsylvania prepares to make room for casinos

Penn National
An artist's rendition of the new grandstand and slots casino to be built at Penn National.

Thoroughbred racetracks in Pennsylvania are gearing up for massive construction projects as the state inches toward granting them licenses to take bets through slot machines.

Penn National Race Course in Grantville plans to tear down its 33-year-old grandstand this month, shortly after closing the track to live racing for a two-week period beginning April 8. Philadelphia Park in Bensalem, meanwhile, is beginning to renovate its grandstand as it prepares to install as many as 1,250 slot machines on its first floor later this year while going forward with a 300,000-square-foot casino located elsewhere on the property.

The construction projects are taking place nearly two years after slot machines were legalized at 14 sites in Pennsylvania, including eight racetracks. Since then, the process to award licenses to the sites has been slow, deliberate, and political, as legislators work out rules under which the machines will be operated.

Penn National plans to build an entirely new grandstand and casino in a 365,000-square-foot building that will be located on the site of the old grandstand. Although the current building will be demolished shortly after the track closes temporarily on April 8, the reconstruction project will not begin until the track receives a conditional license to operate slot machines later this year, according to Penn officials.

Penn's grandstand will be closed after the live racing card on April 8. The track will then go on hiatus for two weeks in order to relocate its racing office, jockeys' quarters, and administrative offices into trailers on the property, according to Fred Lipkin, a spokesman for Penn.

Live racing is scheduled to resume on April 26. On that date, Penn National will open an offtrack betting facility on the property for customers, although bettors will be unable to go outside to watch any live races.

Lipkin also said that the track plans to renovate the base of its racing surface during the two-week break in April. Penn National's track has been the source of complaints from some trainers and jockeys over the past six months.

"It's a good time to do it, obviously," Lipkin said.

At Philadelphia Park, the track is preparing to move its racing operations to the third floor of the grandstand, according to Bill Hogwood, the chief operating officer of the track. The first floor, which was renovated seven years ago, will be converted into a temporary casino so that the track can begin taking slot machine bets as soon as a conditional license is granted, Hogwood said.

Separately, Philadelphia plans to build a free-standing casino on its 450-acre property, with the hopes that it will be operational by the end of 2007, Hogwood said. The track also plans to build a hotel and convention center in the future.

Initial public hearings for the slot licenses are scheduled for the beginning of April. In Harrisburg, a hearing to discuss Penn National's license will be held April 6, and a hearing to discuss Philadelphia Park's license is scheduled for

April 10 at nearby Drexel University. Officials of the tracks said they expected conditional licenses to be awarded by the end of the summer.