After a stalemate that lasted for months, Penn National Gaming, the City of Columbus, and Franklin County have tentatively agreed to a deal that will end their squabble and allow construction of a west side casino to proceed.
Under the deal, Columbus will kick in $15 million in environmental clean-up and road improvement costs and Penn National will agree to have the casino site annexed into Columbus, which will then benefit from tax revenues and “host city” revenues generated by the casino. Both parties will pay $2.5 million toward development projects in the west side, and an as-yet-unidentified party is supposed to kick in $11 million to buy the Arena District site where Penn National originally was going to build the casino. The deadline for getting all of the pieces of the deal inked is June 10, and if that deadline is met Penn National thinks the casino can be completed and open in 2012.
I voted against the constitutional amendment authorizing casinos in Columbus and elsewhere in Ohio because I don’t think Columbus needs a casino. My side lost, and it became inevitable that a casino would be built. Since the vote, and the later decision to move the casino to a location in the city’s depressed west side, workers in the construction industry and west side businesses and residents have been looking forward to the jobs that casino construction and operations will provide. For their sake, I’m glad that a deal has been struck.
Yesterday the Columbus casino — which was approved by Ohio voters via a constitutional amendment in 2009 — broke ground. Given the amount of rain we’ve had here lately, the assembled crowd of hard-hatted dignitaries probably didn’t need a shovel so much as a row boat.
The building of the casino at the western edge of the city’s metropolitan area has been delayed due to a long-running dispute between the city of Columbus and the casino developers about annexation and water and sewer rights. Although the groundbreaking ceremony has occurred, it’s not clear how much progress can be made because many of the disputes remain unresolved. There is a welter of litigation between various parties about various issues that is still to be resolved.
The delay is frustrating for many people on the west side, who look upon the casino as a chance to revitalize the area and provide some much-needed jobs. I’m sure there are many west-siders who are hoping that yesterday’s ceremony means that the jobs, jobs, jobs that were the principal selling point for the 2009 constitutional amendment are not far away.
Slowly, but surely, the casino on the west side of Columbus is moving toward completion. Recently the developer unveiled plans and architect drawings for the Hollywood Casino, which is what the casino will be called. Nearby residents apparently were impressed. The casino will be a 300,000 square foot, one-story structure that will have thousands of slot machines, dozens of table games, a poker room, and restaurants. From the architect renderings, it looks about what you would expect a casino to look like, both inside and outside. It is currently slated to open in mid-2012.
In the meantime, City of Columbus officials and the casino developers are scrapping about whether the city made certain promises when the casino moved from the Arena District to the west side of town — a move that city leaders desperately wanted. Each side thinks it has leverage. The casino developer’s west side land is in Franklin Township, not the city of Columbus, and if the casino developer doesn’t seek annexation Columbus would lose $24 million a year in casino taxes. On the other hand, Columbus says it won’t provide water to the site unless it is annexed. The areas in dispute seem to revolve around tax breaks and some form of compensation for the losses the casino developer apparently incurred when it agreed to move the casino location.
Another issue to be resolved is the membership of the state commission that is supposed to regulate the casinos. The members nominated by outgoing Governor Ted Strickland have not been confirmed, and Governor-elect John Kasich wants to make his own appointments to the body. The individuals appointed by Strickland, however, say that if they don’t move forward deadlines will be missed and the construction of the casinos could be delayed.
There are always going to be some snags when you are starting up a new, heavily regulated business in a place like Columbus, Ohio — and casinos are no different.
As we at Webner House hoped, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved State Issue 2, which will move the constitutionally approved casino from Columbus’ Arena District to a site on the west side of town. It is a win for fans of the Arena District, a win for the economically depressed west side of town, and a win for Penn National, which gets a more accessible casino location. The casino construction will get underway soon and is expected to open in 2012. At that point, Ohio will leave the dwindling ranks of states with no casinos within their borders.
In other election news, Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher handily defeated Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate nomination, and voters also approved Issue 1, which extends the Third Frontier program.
Ohio’s May primary is three weeks away, and so far it hasn’t garnered much attention in terms of press, political ads, or voter interest. Compared to the November election, when the legalized gambling issue attracted huge amounts of money and generated constant TV ads, the upcoming election has flown under the radar.
I’ll be going to the polls on May 4 intending to vote for Issue 2. That issue, if passed, would change the site of Columbus’ casino from the Arena District near downtown to the site of the former Delphi plant in west Columbus. The Delphi site is far from downtown and indeed is outside I-270, the six-lane highway that rings Columbus.
Unlike the November 2009 issue to amend the Ohio Constitution to allow casinos, which was opposed by a majority of voters in the Columbus area, Issue 2 seems to be supported by just about everyone. The Columbus city administration and the civic movers and shakers didn’t want the casino in the Arena District, an up-and-coming development area just north of downtown. Franklin Township, where the Delphi plant was located, is excited about getting rid of an abandoned industrial site and putting up an entertainment venue that will add some jobs. Even the casino operator probably isn’t too upset about the location change, because the new site will have more space for parking and will be much more accessible for people coming from out of town on I-71 or I-70, both of which connect with I-270. In any case, Penn National Gaming, which will operate the new casino, has already started to tear down the old Delphi plant, and as a result some jobs have been created already.
As readers of this blog know, I am not a big fan of casinos in Columbus — but if we are constitutionally required to have one, I would rather have it on the outskirts of town rather than in the heart of the city. For that reason, I wholeheartedly support Issue 2 and hope Ohio voters will, too.