AUSTINTOWN - The board that oversees horse racing in Ohio on Tuesday ordered the company wanting to build a new thoroughbred racetrack here to come back next week with upgraded plans for more public seating at the proposed track.
Operator Penn National Gaming will do just that, but a spokesman with the company noted following Tuesday's meeting that declining demand for live thoroughbred racing may be at the heart of the debate.
Officials from Penn National on Tuesday already had presented an amended proposal to the race commission indicating they would increase total seating from previous estimates of about 500 to about 766, including 268 outdoor "lower grandstand" seats and about 498 indoor "upper grandstand" seats. The proposal also includes potential for about another 250 seats to be added in the future if warranted.
''We will, as they asked, come back next week and present to them what we think we could do to meet their requests," said Penn National spokesman Bob Tenenbaum, who attended Tuesday's meeting of the Ohio Race Commission in Columbus.
And if the board is satisfied, the members could vote as early as next week on whether to grant Penn National's request to move its racetrack from Columbus' Beulah Park to Austintown, where site preparations already have been under way since December.
But Tenenbaum noted the company designed its seating numbers based on projections for demand.
"This track has met what we think will be the demand in actual seating in the racetrack areas,'' he said. "The fact of the matter is, over the last 10 to 15 years, attendance has consistently dropped.
''We are trying to draw a distinction here between capacity and practicality and realism," Tenenbaum said. "We could build 10,000 seats, but who's going to fill them?"
Despite what he called "vastly reduced attendance," Tenenbaum said Penn National remains committed to building new tracks like the one proposed for Austintown because the potential for Video Lottery Terminals or VLTs - commonly referred to as video slots - is working to counter that trend.
''A lot of this grows out of the whole VLT proposal, which we think are bringing more people to the facilities," he said. "The presence of the VLTs is going to increase purses for the horsemen, which I think the horsemen will agree, is very important."
One of the concerns voiced by the commission, according to Austintown Trustee Jim Davis, who attended Tuesday's meeting in Columbus, also dealt the number of indoor seats, largely because there is a possibility that horses on this track will race in the winter months. Racing in Penn National's existing Beulah Park takes place between October and April.
''Although VLTs might be the largest draw for this, the ultimate thing here is that this is a racetrack being transferred and they have to do what they can to protect thoroughbred racing in the state of Ohio," Davis said.
He went to the meeting to speak about economic development being triggered by the racetrack plans and growing excitement.
Davis said he plans to return to next week's meeting, as do Ohio legislators representing the Mahoning Valley.
State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, who has been supportive of putting video lottery terminals at horse race tracks in Ohio and the building of the racino in his district, said he plans to attend the meeting and, in the meantime, will reach out to company officials about the issues in question.
''The last thing anybody wants is the racing commission to not accept the permits,'' said Schiavoni, D-Canfield.
''It was upsetting to me when I learned what happened (on Tuesday), but I understand things do happen and I'm glad the racing commission gave Penn National the opportunity to present the information next week,'' he said.
Also raising concerns at Tuesday's meeting was an attorney representing the Jockeys' Guild.
Terry Meyocks, national manager for the group, said the group has raised concerns because of the relatively small number of horse stalls and limited accommodations in the jockey dormitories.
Meyocks said Penn National is proposing 500 horse stalls - a figure he called "unheard of" - and compared it to 1,090 in Beulah Park.
"If they are going to skimp on the seats and the dormitories, are they going to skimp on the track?" Meyocks said. "We just asked the commission to look at it. It's all about the safety of the riders and horses."
Meyocks said the guild wants to ensure the track is built using materials appropriate for the potential winter racing.
"We are confident that it will be an excellent facility regardless of what time of year it's running," Tenenbaum responded. ''We are still very hopeful that we can satisfy the commission's needs, get approval and if that happens within the next month or so, it would have absolutely no impact on the construction schedule."