AUSTINTOWN - More than 12 pieces of heavy equipment, flatbed trucks loaded with massive cement culverts and at least a dozen men began descending Thursday on the 184 acres of land set to become a horse racetrack and video slot terminal here.
It was the first day of what was described by Mark Rice, supervisor of Independence Excavating, as "early site prep" involving erosion and sediment control. Crews will build a temporary access road, remove trees and top soil, and build sediment ponds.
Rice said his company has been eagerly awaiting word to get started, and after hearing in just the past few days from General Contractor Turner Construction of Cleveland that the contracts were inked and approval granted, the excavators began moving in.
They will spend the next 60 days with very few days off laying preliminary groundwork for construction of the Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course being built by Penn National Gaming off state Route 46 in Austintown. Penn National officials have said they plan to be open for business in the first half of 2014.
The work was a welcome sight by Austintown Trustee Jim Davis, who also stood at the site Thursday morning snapping photos of the excavators unloading their equipment.
''Everybody keeps asking when is it coming, and now we are finally seeing it,'' Davis said. ''It's just a great day for Austintown.''
Rice and Davis said many of the workers at the site will hail from within easy driving distance, and as construction progresses, more development and growth is predicted to follow.
Moon Park, who owns the vacant Master Park Plaza just across Route 46, said he has been entertaining visits by restaurateurs, hotels and other potential businesses.
''There are two to three hotels that have expressed interest,'' Park said Thursday. ''Last week I showed it to three different restaurant companies."
Despite the large number of hotels already located at the nearby busy interchange of Interstate 80 and state Route 46, Park said more hotels are needed to handle the traffic anticipated from the new racino.
Park noted that in the past few months he closed the last two businesses that he operated in the plaza, Body Works fitness club and Master Parks martial arts studio, because he was aware of the market potential and knew it would be easier to sell the plaza if it were vacant.
According to the Mahoning County Auditor, the nearly 3 acres that Park said he purchased about seven years ago have a market value of just more than $1 million. Park declined to say what he is asking for the property.
Davis said he too has taken phone calls from at least one investor contemplating construction of a 50- to 60-room luxury hotel near the racino's Route 46 entrance.
Austintown zoning inspector Darren Crivelli said he still is waiting on storm management drawings from Penn National along with plans for the name change of a street in the area that had been dedicated but never was paved.
Conditional use permits were granted Nov. 9 to Penn National Gaming from the Austintown Township Board of Appeals. The plans call for two entrances. In addition to the Route 46 public entrance, another entrance will be added off 76 Drive for access to the racetrack stables.
Documents submitted by Penn National to the zoning officials indicate that 9.3 percent of the parcel will be occupied with buildings, signage, landscape and paving in Phase I. Future expansion possibilities include the addition of more buildings for gaming activities and amenities, along with additional horse stables as future growth requires.
Pilon signs with motion video are being proposed for the main entrance.
The company has said it will begin the education, training and hiring process early next year. The company has estimated the project could bring 1,000 direct and indirect jobs, in addition to the 1,000 or so construction jobs.
Many jobs, such as slot machine technicians needed to service up to 1,500 planned terminals, will be well-paying positions with health benefits. Other positions, such as servers, will be largely dependent on tips.