Special to the Salem News
COLUMBUS - A deal reached Friday between Gov. John Kasich and Penn National Gaming Inc. is a step but not the final one in the quest to bring a casino from Toledo to Austintown.
Penn National, the developer of casinos in Columbus and Toledo, says it can now move forward with plans that officials earlier had said included relocating one of its existing tracks, Toledo's Raceway Park, to Austintown if VLTs were permitted at racetracks. Penn National also owns Beulah Park in suburban Columbus.
Any move that Penn National wishes to make would have to be approved by the Ohio State Racing Commission.
On Friday, Bob Tenenbaum, Penn National Gaming Inc. spokesman, said the agreement by the governor calls for VLTs to be put at existing tracks and if that takes place, then Penn National will consider moving their Toledo race track to Austintown.
Tenenbaum stressed that the move still needs approved by the Legislature.
''It's not a done deal, but it is a significant step,'' Tenenbaum said.
Kasich had reached a similar resolution this week with the developer of casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati.
State lawmakers had tucked a provision into the state budget that applied the commercial activity tax to bets wagered at casinos without deducting winnings and payouts. Operators said it would add tens of millions to their costs.
Kasich said Friday's agreement with Penn National would bring the state an additional $110 million over 10 years.
Both agreements tax the companies on wagers minus payouts. Penn would be required to invest $700 million in its facilities, up from $500 million agreed to the state constitution.
Two separate racetrack proposals have been announced for the Mahoning Valley - one in Vienna and one in Austintown.
Rick Lertzman of Mahoning Valley Development Group LLC, which has proposed a new racetrack and resort in Vienna, earlier this week had hailed the announcement directed at casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati.
''We are very excited the governor has moved to legalize VLTs. We applaud his plan,'' he said. ''I think it's good for us because the VLTs will be a big part of what we do.''
Lertzman said he believes that the approval of VLTs will help accelerate the process of getting a track approved and a license granted.
However, he said at that time that he saw the race to get a track for the Mahoning Valley as a challenge for both sides and that officials and residents of Trumbull County need to get involved.
''It should be up to the community to decide which project suits them best,'' he said. ''We hope that representatives from Trumbull County step forward and embrace this project.''
By putting the VLT rules in a memorandum of understanding with ROC, Kasich skirted one legal conundrum faced by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. Strickland's proposal to legalize video lottery terminals at the tracks was sidelined by a court challenge and ultimately dropped.
Opponents were swift to attack the move by Kasich, a Republican, as an end-run around voters.
"If John Kasich were a commentator on Fox News right now, and some governor somewhere was trying to do this, he would be on a rant about how they were stepping on voters' constitutional protections," said David Zanotti, whose Ohio Roundtable has led the charge against legalized gambling in the state for more than a decade.
The administration noted that portions of the agreement would have to be approved by lawmakers, and in some cases by the Casino Control, Lottery and Racing commissions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report