Published: Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Region could hit the jackpot
It isn't a sure bet that the developers of the proposed $500 million entertainment complex near New Castle will nab the final harness racing license being awarded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but if they do, the Shenango and Mahoning valleys will have hit the jackpot.
The thousands of jobs that would ultimately be created once the mile-long racetrack, slot-machine casino, full-service hotel, convention center, retail shopping district, indoor water park and condominiums are up and running would largely be filled by residents from both sides of the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. The Bedford Downs site in Mahoning Township is less than a half-hour's drive from the center of downtown Youngstown.
The regional aspect of the project, the brainchild of brothers Carmen and Ken Shick and their sister, Kendra Tabak, was reflected in last week's public hearing hosted by the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission. It was held in a huge tent erected on the site of the planned racetrack/casino, and in the crowd of several hundred were residents of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties. It's easy to spot Ohio license plates in Pennsylvania.
The numerous references to Youngstown as the catch-word for the region and Ohio made it clear that not only Carmen Shick, president and CEO of Bedford Downs Management Corp., but government officials and community leaders in Lawrence County see this as a cross-border economic development initiative.
There was none of the "we don't want outsiders involved" goofiness that is heard much too often in the Mahoning Valley. Nor was there any chest-thumping over the fact that Pennsylvania has beaten Ohio in the race to legalize slot-machine gambling. Credit, of course, must go to Democratic Gov. Edward Rendell, who was able to persuade Republicans in the Legislature to shed their aversion to casino-style gambling by making the reduction of property taxes the cornerstone of his push.
By contrast, Ohio's Republican governor, Bob Taft, has led the fight against expanding gambling from the state-run lottery even though he was instrumental in Ohio's joining the multistate Mega Millions lottery. The governor has also not objected to the explosive growth of instant lottery tickets, so-called scratchoffs.
Attempts by some legislators to push through a measure that would permit slot machines in horse-racing tracks have been blunted by the anti-gambling lobby that has corralled the Republican majority in the Ohio General Assembly.
But in light of what is going on in Pennsylvania, and the prospect of a $500 million entertainment complex being located just a stone's throw from the Ohio- Pennsylvania border, the refusal by Republicans in Columbus to support casino- style gambling may be a godsend.
To be sure, the expansion of legalized gambling in Ohio would benefit the Mahoning Valley if not directly (the closest racetrack to this area is in Cleveland) then indirectly. But so long as Taft is governor, there is little chance of slots coming to Ohio.
It, therefore, makes sense for residents in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties to voice their support for the Bedford Downs initiative. The Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission would certainly react positively to Ohioans' saying they would be willing to make the short drive to Mahoning Township to not only work, but to play.
The public hearing last week revealed why the Shick brothers and their sister are deserving of the region's attention and the state's support through the awarding of the harness racing license: The $500 million price tag does not require any public (read that taxpayers) funds.
It is not surprising that the loudest applause from the crowd came when Carmen Shick said of the project's financing, "There will be no cost to citizens and taxpayers of Pennsylvania."
The first phase, which includes construction of the racetrack, 200,000- square-foot grandstand and casino for 3,000 to 5,000 slot machines (the state will charge $50 million for the casino license), would begin early next year if the harness racing license is awarded to Bedford Downs Management Corp.
While the Shick and Tabak names may not be familiar in the Mahoning Valley, their grandfather certainly was known in this area. Carmen Ambrosia founded Ambrosia Enterprises 70 years ago and built the construction, mining and homebuilding company into an financial powerhouse in the region.