AUSTINTOWN - The $45,801 building permit authorizing $15.9 million of construction at the planned Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course, signed Wednesday by Mahoning County Chief building official Jeff Uroseva, will have to wait.
So will this week's planned $4 million purchase on structural steel and initial foundation contracts at the site off state Route 46.
After months of haggling in Columbus, members of the Ohio Race Commission on Wednesday sent Penn National Gaming back to the drawing board to find a way to add 650 climate-controlled seats to the 580 indoor seats already outlined at the proposed Austintown thoroughbred racetrack.
A view of the proposed site of the Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course along state Route 46 in Austintown. The Ohio Race Commission wants more indoor seats at the venue.
Penn National spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said the new requirement will delay the project by four to six months because the existing architectural plans cannot accommodate the additional indoor seating.
"We have to literally go back to the drawing board," Tenenbaum said. "We are going to have to redesign the building, at considerable cost, and go back through the permitting process again and ask for approval again."
Commission chairman Robert Schmitz said the board's decision was justified.
"We are just trying to make the racing end of this thing make sense," Schmitz said following Wednesday's meeting. "We are all for the Valley. We are all for jobs and progress. But we think what's been presented does not move racing forward in the state of Ohio."
Schmitz said that until now, the commission did not spell out a specific number of required seats because the commission expected the company to keep improving their plans. That's something he said Penn National did not do to the commission's satisfaction.
Tenenbaum and Austintown Township trustee Jim Davis didn't see it that way.
"This is like constantly moving the goal line," Tenenbaum said.
Davis agreed. "I almost felt the board of commissioners was to the point of being dysfunctional," he said. "Penn National has followed the guidelines to the letter from day 1."
Building and zoning officials in the Mahoning County Building Department and Austintown Township zoning department said Penn National would not be forced to start over in the permitting process if changes are made to the drawings. Mahoning's Uroseva said the company would have to submit amended plans for approval, and Austintown's Darren Crivelli said the changes would not require a trip back to the zoning commission, but rather could be administratively approved in his office.
Uroseva noted earlier in the day he had signed the building permit approving foundations for the casino building. His office has not yet received plans for the horse barns or any other structures. He praised Penn National's responsiveness to the requirements of his department.
"They have been doing everything right, so far, on my end," Uroseva said.
In coming months, seating additions won't be the only issues getting close scrutiny.
"We are also concerned in Austintown with the number of stalls they have for thoroughbred racing. There should be at least 1,000 stalls," Schmitz said.
That issue, along with other concerns raised by the Jockeys' Guild about track materials and jockeys' dormitories, have been on the table for discussion.
The commission has not voted to set minimum requirements on those issues.
"We will take a look at that part, but the most important thing right now is the racing fan aspect of it," Schmitz said.
Penn National and the Jockeys' Guild have been in talks over changes requested by the guild.
Terry Meyocks, national manager of Jockeys' Guild based in Kentucky, said the guild isn't satisfied that jockey safety, including a focus on the materials used to build the track, along with dormitories are getting the attention they should.
"Everybody thinks they are going to be looking out for the fans, but nobody can forget about the safety of the jockeys and the integrity of racing," Meyocks said.
Tenenbaum described Wednesday's action as "disappointing," but said it is too premature for the company to comment on whether the changes, increased cost and delays might weaken their overall commitment to the project.
Austintown's Davis, who again made the trip to Columbus for Wednesday's meeting, said he believes Penn National's commitment to the project won't change.
"They are committed to this project. We have known that since day 1, and I think the racing commission knows this also," Davis said. "For us, right now, it's a delay in our goal of creating 1,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs."
Also still pending is approval for the racetrack's video lottery terminals. Permits are awaiting approval by the Ohio Lottery Commission.