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May 10, 2014

Photo Gallery, Story: Differing opinions offered at gaming hearing

NEW CASTLE — Track owners and locals offered differing views on whether Lawrence Downs Casino and Racing Resort should receive a gaming license.

Forty-seven people addressed the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board at a public hearing at the Mahoning Township Community Center on Thursday. More than 200 people attended.

Local residents, government officials and business people urged the board to award the state’s final Category I casino license to Endeka Entertainment for the $210 million venture.

The Philadelphia-based organization, in partnership with Penn National Gaming, plans to build the harness racing track and casino off Routes 422 and 551 in Mahoning Township.

The developer already holds a harness racing license for the venture.

The project is expected to spur more than 600 permanent jobs for Lawrence County. An additional 1,000 construction jobs are anticipated during the 15 to 18 month building phase.

Representatives of the Meadows Racetrack and Casino, Rivers Casino and Washington County, home to The Meadows harness racing track, gave opposing views and urged the board not to grant the license to Endeka.

They complained that casino revenues are being eroded from competition in Pennsylvania and from new venues in  Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

Craig Clark, general manager of Rivers Casino, estimated that if Lawrence Downs is built, 25 percent of the local casino’s revenue will be at the expense of Rivers and The Meadows. Rivers would be 55 miles from the proposed Lawrence Downs.

Sean Sullivan, general manager of The Meadows, said his facility already has felt the loss of patrons and revenue since the Lady Luck Resort Casino opened at Nemacolin.

He urged the board to grant the last casino license “to a place where it will generate more gaming revenue, income and jobs for the state,” instead of to a western Pennsylvania venue. He noted that a report by state Treasurer Robert McCord indicates the best place for a casino is York or Adams county.

“Maybe Lawrence County was the place five years ago, but that was before Austintown,” he said.

Penn National’s thoroughbred racetrack with a video lottery terminal parlor under construction in Austintown, Ohio, is expected to open in the fall.

The competing casino operators also argued that the Lawrence County project would be backed by taxpayers’ money, which they said puts local taxpayers at risk.

County Commissioner Dan Vogler called those comments a “blatant mischaracterization” of what the county officials propose.

He said the commissioners are proposing a $50 million bond issue to be paid off with part of the county’s share of anticipated casino revenues. No taxpayer money would be used, he said.

Lawrence County Controller David Gettings noted that 122 casinos compete and coexist in Las Vegas.

Locals in favor of the venture noted 10 years of commitment to the project.

Several spoke of anticipated benefits for local schools, including the presence of Butler County Community College at Lawrence Crossing and New Castle School of Trades, available to train potential employees.

Mercer County Commissioner John Lechner addressed cooperative efforts between Lawrence and Mercer counties. He said the racing complex will compliment the Prime Outlets near Grove City, an outlet mall that draws people from as far as Canada.

Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan countered that Lawrence Downs getting the license would not be in the best interest of gaming, and that additional competition will hurt existing venues.

The crowd booed Vaughan when she asked the board to deny the license.

The Rev. James Downs, who supports the project, pointed out gambling “is not sinful, but not grace-filled either.”

With gambling, as with all compulsive behaviors, it is up to the individual to control, he said.

Downs apologized to the board for the “appalling way we treated the Washington County commissioner.”

Vaughan had said in her remarks that opportunities “for economic prosperity are still achievable to Lawrence County without a casino.”

Downs in response commented, “But, doggone, she left without telling us what they were. Maybe she’ll write.”

(To view Debbie Wachter’s photo gallery from the hearing, CLICK HERE.)

 

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