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Dayton racino delayed for months over seating concerns

Construction on a proposed $125 million Dayton racino will be delayed a minimum of four to six months following a vote from the Ohio State Racing Commission on Wednesday, officials with the company behind the project said.

After a testy public exchange with a top Penn National Gaming official, the racing commission voted unanimously to require the company to add an additional 650 enclosed, climate-controlled seats with a view of the racetrack to its pair of planned racinos, one in Dayton and one in Mahoning County.

That’s about double the number of enclosed seats the company had proposed and would bring the racetrack’s total seating capacity to around 1,200.

Penn National officials said the extra seating is unncessary, and said it will require the company to start over on its design and approval process. That could delay the project a minimum of four to six months.

“This means we will suspend construction on the Dayton site,” said Bob Tenenbaum, a spokesman for Penn National. “We were literally two days away from awarding two major contracts — $4 million in contracts — for structural steel and the foundation work to start.”

The company had planned to finish construction on the site of a former Delphi plant on Wagner Ford Road in spring 2014.

Steven Snyder, Penn National’s vice-president of corporate development, said the racing commission has already pushed for extra seating that will end up exceeding market demand.

“We feel our design has already compromised the racing fan experience to a degree that we’re very uncomfortable going any further,” Snyder said.

Racing commissioners, whose approval is needed before Penn National can move Raceway Park in Toledo to Dayton, and Beluah Park in Grove City to Austintown, reiterated that they do not want the racinos to emphasize gambling at the expense of a live horse-racing experience.

“This commission is not opposed to jobs, and it’s not opposed to progress,” said commission chairman Robert Schmitz. “We are supportive of everything you all are doing, but in our opinion, we don’t think it quite hits the mark for horse racing in Ohio.”

The Montgomery County Fairgrounds, which offers live harness racing during the county fair every August, has 1,500 seats in its grandstand. Mike Weist, president of the fair board, said on a good night during fair week, there are 300 to 400 spectators in the grandstands.

This summer, the Montgomery County Fair will feature just one day of harness racing.

“I think 650 seats is plenty,” Weist said. “In my opinion, I don’t think (a larger grandstand) can be filled at this time. There aren’t that many fans anymore. Younger people are just not that into it. They’ll go to the racino for the gambling.”

Schmitz said he hopes patrons attracted by video lottery terminals will end up developing a love for horse racing, and wants to make sure that people aren’t turned away.

“We’re trying to move horse racing forward in Ohio. We want to bring racing back to where it was a number of years ago,” Schmitz said.

Penn National officials broadly criticized the racing commission’s handling of their project, saying commissioners basically had moved the goalposts of what it would take to get approval.

“This process is broken,” Snyder said. “This process where we’ve gone and spent tens of millions of dollars on designs and concepts based on plans that we presented to certain members of this commission last November and we’re just now finding are unacceptable.”

“They didn’t raise any serious objections until a few weeks ago when they said ‘more seating,’ ” said Christopher McErlean, Penn National’s vice president for racing. “It seems to be a moving target each time.”

That’s not the case, Schmitz said.

“Seating has been a concern from day one,” he said, adding that the specific number of seats the racing commission wants was developed within the last couple days.

Penn’s site plan for the racino has been approved by the Dayton City Commission after a lengthy review process. Shelley Dickstein, assistant city manager for strategic development, said she’s not sure whether the process for local approval will have to start all over again with the increase in seating, or if city staff can amend the plan.

“It depends on the degree to which the plan is altered,” Dickstein said. “It really depends on what Penn National will have to do to accommodate (racing commission) requirements.”

Dayton City Commissioner Nan Whaley said she doesn’t understand the racing commission’s decision to delay a vote on the transfer of Raceway Park.

“I’m disappointed by the decision,” Whaley said. “Penn National is one of the largest gaming companies. They’re running a business. You’d think they’d know how many seats they need. The community is OK with (the seating in Penn’s plan). The Plan Board passed it unanimously.”

The commission also voted to request a different company looking to build a racino near Lebanon to add 430 enclosed seats.

It’s not clear to what extent changing the design would affect that project’s timeline. Ron Sultemeier, an official with Miami Valley Gaming’s parent company, said building the extra seating as a separate phase of the project would take four to five months.

Warren County Commissioner Pat South said Miami Valley Gaming already upped its seating capacity by 100 seats to 850 before the racing commission approved the site plan.

“It seems unfair the racing commission is coming back after approving the plan,” South said. “It not only creates major delays, it adds cost.”

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