Redevelopment of the Warren County Fairgrounds is on hold while state officials work out the details of distributing as much as $12 million to Ohio communities losing horse-racing businesses through the legalization of racinos in the state.
Lebanon is the first of four communities around Ohio eligible for up to $3 million from a fund set up in state law, passed in 2011, permitting racetrack owners to add electronic slot machines to the gambling offerings at their facilities, creating racinos.
The other $9 million would go to as many as three other communities, including Toledo; Grove City, south of Columbus; and possibly North Randall, east of Cleveland; that qualify for relocation funding, if they lose their racetrack.
To receive the money, the communities will be required to submit plans to the Ohio Development Services Agency expected to create jobs and stimulate economic development where the racetracks were located.
Racino owners are required to provide the funds within six months of opening. Miami Valley Gaming had yet to provide the funds for the Lebanon redevelopment, according to the Ohio Development Services Agency.
State officials also said it would be six months to a year before guidelines outlining the qualifications for the funding have been completed.
“Nothing’s been approved. We have been giving guidance,” said Thea Walsh, deputy chief of the Office of Redevelopment for the state development agency.
Racetrack relocation funds
The relocation funding is provided for in H.B. 386, a 186-page bill, passed in June 2011, that amended Ohio’s horse racing and casino laws to allow for racinos. The law also created the Racetrack Redevelopment Facility Community Economic Development Fund.
Through the fund, each former racetrack community will be eligible for up to $3 million to be paid into the fund within six months of the opening of each racino.
Toledo would qualify for funds, due to the loss of Raceway Park, when Penn National’s Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway replaces it. Grove City, south of Columbus, would qualify when Penn National opens a racino planned in Austintown, outside Youngstown, replacing Beulah Park. Both these racinos are expected to open this fall, according to Bob Tenenbaum, spokesman for Penn National.
North Randall, east of Cleveland, would qualify if the ThistleDown Racino moves to the Akron-Canton area. Rob Nichols, spokesman for Gov. John Kasich, said the state continued to work with with ThistleDown owners, Rock Ohio Caesars, on the move. Rock Caesars spokeswoman Jennifer Kulczycki said the company was still weighing the option but had until June to decide.
State wants jobs, economic development
State officials expect the four communities to develop plans expected to maximize job creation and economic development.
“This is really an opportunity to think outside the box and go big,” Walsh said.
The fairgrounds redevelopment also will be funded through another $3 million from the racino operators over the next 4 1/2 years.
These funds are committed in an agreement reached this week between the racino operators and local governments and school districts affected by the move.
Meanwhile funds for redevelopment of former track sites remain in limbo until the state guidelines have been formed, officials said.
“There’s no final outline of what is being asked,” said Stephanie Gostomski, spokesman for the agency. “We want to work with these communities to make sure it’s getting the best use.”
Warren County’s wait
In December, live racing and simulcast operations, known as Lebanon Raceway, were moved to the new Miami Valley Gaming racino from the county fairgrounds in Lebanon, where they had operated year-round, for decades, except during the annual county fair.
Last month, live harness racing began at the 120-acre Miami Valley Gaming complex, south of Lebanon in Turtlecreek Twp.
The fairgrounds still features stables for 400 horses, some of which have been rented recently by horsemen who have moved into the area to race at Miami Valley Gaming’s new $25 million track and simulcast facilities.
The move left the agricultural society without its major tenant and area officials unsure about the future of the site.
Last week, the county decided against selling the site, just north of downtown Lebanon, to a developer for a commercial or mixed use development. The fairgrounds would have been moved.
Instead the county plans to propose a multi-use plan of its own at the fairgrounds. The annual county fair and other agricultural events would continue to be held there. In addition, event and equestrian centers, a business incubator and educational center offering veterinarian technician programs would be developed.
County officials are counting on the state to take into account that of the four communities facing a future without a racetrack business, only Lebanon’s was located on public property.
“I think they understand we are unique,” Warren County Economic Development Director Martin Russell said.