Our Towns

After One Year, Mixed Economic Impact from Racino

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AUSTINTOWN, Ohio – Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course keeps DeNiro Quality Foods Inc. busy.

The Youngstown specialty grocer makes four to five deliveries each week to the racino in Austintown, its president, Greg DeNiro, reports. DeNiro supplies it with everything from hamburgers, sausage patties and french fries to processed tomato products, condiments and paper products.

“They do business with big main lines like Sysco. But when they’re short, they call on us and we’re there in an hour,” DeNiro says. “I built this business on service and they appreciate that.”

DeNiro is among the nearby vendors that supply products and services to Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course, the racino that Penn National Gaming Inc. of Wyomissing, Pa., opened a year ago this month. It offers video lottery terminals – electronic slot machines – year round and seasonal thoroughbred racing.

“We’re always looking for local vendors first and foremost that can supply us,” says Mike Galle, with Penn National 20 years and general manager of the racino.

In addition to DeNiro, other local suppliers Galle cites are City Printing Inc. in Youngstown, with which it works on marketing materials, and Eagle Wear Inc. in Hubbard, which supplies items for the Rodeo Drive gift shop.

Employment at the racino was about 320 at the end of August, and 65% of employees are full-time, Galle says. Pay for full-time employees ranges around $15 per hour on average, he reports.

Hiring is about to begin for the live racing season, which begins Oct. 30. Seasonal track hiring will add another 100 positions or so to employment.

“We’ve made the commitment to the community that we’re going to hire over 90% of our team members locally. We’ve held up to that commitment,” Galle says. “They went through a rigorous training program and a number of them have remained with us, so we’re very happy with our employment stats.”

Beyond the racino itself, its economic impact is more mixed.

“I’ve heard from some of the fast-food places for example, or some of the places right outside” that they have had an increase in business, Austintown Township Trustee Ken Carano reports. “It’s not overwhelming but it certainly is an increase.” Whether restaurants and hotels are seeing increased business resulting from the racino or just the location is uncertain, he acknowledges.

Staff at the combined Taco Bell and Long John Silver restaurant nearby say they regularly get Hollywood Gaming patrons on their way to or from the racino.

“Mainly on the weekends is where I see a lot of it,” says assistant manager Antonia Reid.

At Quaker Steak & Lube, just off Route 46 on Interstate Boulevard, assistant manager Nikki Ketcham reports business has “absolutely” gone up since Hollywood Gaming opened last year, by about 5%, she estimates. “Anything’s better than nothing,” she remarks.

Where Ketcham sees increased traffic isn’t so much from racino patrons as from its employees, who come to the restaurant after they get off work. Quaker Steak offers a 10% discount for racino employees and several have become regulars.

“It’s definitely a leader in the night when they come down,” she says. “We’ve actually gotten to know quite a few of the people who work at the racino.”

Operators of nearby hotels say they take advantage of Hollywood Gaming’s proximity to their properties in their marketing and their guests take advantage of the shuttle service the racino offers.

“It’s not a decision maker for people,” says Shelley Stevens, general manager at the Comfort Inn Austintown, off Route 46 northeast of the Interstate 80 interchange. “It is something for me to offer people and people ask about it at the front desk when they are checking in. They love that.”

During construction, the property “had a ton of business” from contractors and carpenters. In the beginning, several entertainers stayed there, Stevens reports.

“We haven’t seen anything since the horses left,” she continues. That business resulted from the horses’ owners and their riders, not people coming to bet on the races. “We did see some business from that, not a huge amount,” she adds.

Michelle Sletvold, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites at the northwestern corner of the Route 46 and I-80 interchange, also doesn’t believe the racino has had a continuing effect on business at the property. “When they were opening, we did get some people from Hollywood Gaming,” she says.

Like Comfort Inn’s Stevens, Sletvold says she uses the racino to market the Holiday Inn. “Absolutely,” she remarks. “It’s something we can sell in the area.”

Real estate frontage along the corridor near the racino remains undeveloped while the developed commercial sites, including a former Speedway station just south of the Interstate 80 interchange and a closed Burger King to its north, have remained vacant for years.

The former Master Park-Bodyworks plaza at Route 46 and Silica Road – directly across from the racino – was sold at a bank auction in late July to Austintown businessman Sam Boak.

Boak, president of Boak & Sons, a home improvement and commercial roofing, insulation, siding and window contractor in Austintown, says he has “no agenda” for the property and “is open to suggestions” as to how to proceed.

“I just go by it every day. It’s an eyesore,” he says. “I didn’t know what direction it was going in.”

If Hollywood Gaming weren’t across the street, that would have prevented him from putting in an offer on the building. One advantage of the property is the presence of a traffic light at the Route 46-Silica Road intersection, Boak says.

While it could enhance the value of the property, the presence of the racino could have downside as well. “Maybe some types of businesses don’t want to be associated with that,” Boak allows.

Darren Crivelli, Austintown zoning inspector, doesn’t believe the racino’s is a “non-factor” in development.

“There is definitely interest in that corridor,” he says. “I don’t believe the Candlewood Suites, which is now open, or the Hilton being built, is the result of the racino. But it’s still indicative that that’s an area of interest for future commercial development.”

Bill Kutlick, broker-owner of Kutlick Realty LLC in Boardman, who represents 17 acres near the racino site, doesn’t foresee much spinoff. “I don’t really see a restaurant coming just because of the racino being there,” he says, but he sees employees stopping at fast-food restaurants rather than eating in the restaurant or food court on premises and shopping for clothes at area retailers. “That’s the positive,” he says.

Any retailers looking at the area are considering the demographics of the community and where consumers spend their dollars in the area rather than the racino, Kutlick adds.

Racino patrons might also stop at the nearby Starbucks or one of the service stations to fuel up after a visit as well, he says.

“For the most part we’re self-contained,” Hollywood Gaming’s Galle acknowledges. However, the racino needs the community to support its “team members,” as he calls the employees, and there have to be businesses that “pop up” to support them.

“The more we hire, the more spending that goes on in the local community, anywhere from taxes to buying new cars to buying groceries. All that takes place just from us being here,” he says.

“There’s been a lot of new development going on here,” Galle continues, from one recently redeveloped service station to another one underway, along with hotel construction. “Is that attributed to us? I don’t know. But there is a lot of new [development] going on.”

Pictured: Mike Galle, general manager of Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course, says the racino has “held up to that commitment” of hiring 90% of its workers from the area.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.