Lawrence residents support casino-racetrack license, but other state casino operators object
Leaders of three Western Pennsylvania casinos on Thursday dampened a mostly feel-good public hearing for a proposed Lawrence County racetrack and casino with calls for state gambling regulators to spare the market another high-stakes business, especially one backed by taxpayers' money.
“Public money has not — and should not — be used to develop casinos,” Craig Clark, general manager of Pittsburgh's Rivers Casino, told members of the state Gaming Control Board during a nearly five-hour meeting in Mahoning, about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh near New Castle.
Clark said all of the state's 12 operating casinos “had to finance their own development.” Approving Lawrence Downs Casino and Racing Resort would change the rules, he said.
“That's not the level playing field this Gaming Board has promised Pennsylvania casinos,” Clark said.
At stake is the state's final racetrack and casino — or racino — license. Seven were approved when lawmakers legalized casino gambling in 2004. One was promised to Lawrence County, which has struggled for a decade to find a developer who could pull off the project.
Officials with Endeka Entertainment and Penn National Gaming believe they now can build Lawrence Downs, a $210 million development with a one-mile harness racing track and a casino with 1,000 slot machines and 36 table games.
Developers said the racino would make 1,000 construction jobs and could be built within 18 months. Once in operation, it would provide 600 full- and part-time jobs.
“The project will stimulate needed economic development in our community,” said Charles “Chuck” Long, a New Castle businessman and local face of the development group. “This community has given me and my family so much. I felt the need to get involved in some pretty dark days for this project.”
Previous attempts fell through when the first developer went bankrupt and the second could not secure funding.
Long's group, American Harness Tracks, joined forces in 2012 with Endeka, a Philadelphia-area outfit headed by Manuel Stamatakis, founder and CEO of Capital Management Enterprises, and fellow investors Ed Snider, owner of the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers; Peter DePaul, president of the DePaul Group; and attorney Thomas Leonard, Philadelphia's former city controller.
To manage operations, Endeka attracted Penn National, North America's largest racetrack gaming operator, which also controls a racino being built 20 miles away outside Youngstown, Ohio.
To help finance Lawrence Downs, county commissioners ponied up $50 million in bonds to be repaid with the annual local share paid by the casino. That money typically pays for economic development projects, which is what commissioners say the casino will be.
“Competition should not be feared. It should be embraced,” said Dan Vogler, county commission chairman.
Dozens of other elected and civic officials as well as local residents voiced support for the project.
“We have a lot more (casinos) than we once had, but we need to learn how to compete,” said state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-New Castle. “You don't have a promise of making as much money as you once dreamed.”
Many in the crowd of about 200 people booed Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan out of the room after she urged the board to deny the license for several reasons, including use of public money to build a facility in a saturated market with declining revenues.
Operators of The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in North Strabane, Washington County, along with the Rivers Casino and Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie, said the state would be better served to find a home for its last racino in central Pennsylvania.
“It's not just about Lawrence,” said Sean Sullivan, Meadows general manager and vice president. “It's about what is the right decision for the commonwealth.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.