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Movers, shakers to buy Lawrence County racetrack-casino

| Monday, July 18, 2011

The group buying a long-delayed Lawrence County racetrack and casino project from Indianapolis-based owners consists of local behind-the-scenes movers in politics, horse racing and development.

According to documents filed with the state Harness Racing Commission, the buyers are: Charles Knoll Jr., a lawyer and son of the late Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll; Christine Biros, a McKeesport real estate developer; Downtown restaurant owner and former lobbyist Nicholas Geanopulos of Mt. Lebanon; Daryl Price, former owner of a Washington County horse stable; and Ted Arneault, former CEO of a West Virginia casino company who now lives in Florida.

"Last summer, we all kind of grouped together and explored this opportunity, and it just sort of fell into place," said Knoll, whom the group designated as its spokesman.

Price owned a stable near The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, but "he's not in it anymore," Knoll said. Biros' family owns a real estate development company, Walnut Street Partners. The family partnered with Price last year to move the Lawrence County project to Johnstown. They could not be reached for comment.

"We've all known one another for many years in one capacity or another," Knoll said. "Everybody has looked at racing and gaming since the enactment of the legislation in 2004."

Their chance came last year as Indianapolis-based Centaur sought a bidder for its Valley View Downs project as part of bankruptcy restructuring.

The $5.6 million bid from the group, American Harness Tracks, was selected as the high bid in October, though the deal depended on the state Harness Racing Commission's approval. The commission approved it on Tuesday.

Arneault and Geanopulos got involved in the gaming industry well before last year. Arneault ran MTR gaming for 13 years before leaving in 2008. He remains a stakeholder in the company, which owns Presque Isle Downs in Erie, and is the only member of the team licensed by the state Gaming Control Board.

In the mid-1990s, around the time Arneault successfully pushed West Virginia lawmakers to legalize gambling, a Las Vegas casino hired Geanopulos to lobby for riverboat gambling in Pittsburgh. Arneault eventually hired Geanopulos as well.

Geanopulos, owner of Nicky's Grant Street Restaurant, Downtown, also for a time was the lobbyist for Presque Isle Downs.

"The bottom line is that Ted has always had a great love for horse racing," said Arneault's lawyer, John Mizner.

Arneault chose to team with Geanopulos again because of the latter's long history with the industry, which he helped bring to Pennsylvania. "Mr. Geanopulos has a significant understanding of racing and gaming issues in Pennsylvania, so it's a natural fit," Mizner said.

Geanopulos declined to comment, saying Knoll is making the group's public statements.

Applying for a gambling license will cost each group member $2,500. The group must pay a $5,000 fee to submit the project's application. If it wins, American Harness Tracks must pay $50 million for the last of the seven gaming licenses available for horse racing tracks. The license would allow it to have slots and table games. Each casino brings in millions of dollars each week in gambling revenue.

Arneault and a former business associate, Erie developer Greg Rubino, sued the gaming board in April, saying its decision to ban Rubino from the gaming industry tarnished their reputations and cost them millions of dollars in lost business opportunities. That lawsuit continues.

"We are hopeful that we are given an appropriate review and consideration, and that nothing will occur that will be in retaliation for our lawsuit," Mizner said.

The board declined comment because the group has not submitted its application yet.

The group has hired James Doherty and Kevin Hayes, the gaming board's former chief counsel and its director of gaming operations, respectively, to represent them in the application process.

Group members are still working out ownership stakes, though none will control more than 50 percent, Knoll said. They also must secure $150 million in financing, which the Harness Racing Commission said must be done within 60 days.

The group will take control of the project when it closes the $5.6 million deal, which is scheduled for Tuesday, said Centaur Chief Financial Officer Kurt Wilson.

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