No news is apparently not good news. At least in the opinion of officials with one Western Pennsylvania county that has been trying to get a casino built for more than a decade.
Lawrence County has been trying to get the Lawrence Downs Casino and Racing Resort built since 2004. Half a dozen investment groups passed around the idea with little progress. But that was before Penn National Gaming got serious about it in 2013.
An investment group called Endeka Entertainment proposed the construction of a 250-acre gambling complex in Mahoning Township near New Castle. Facilities would include:
- A one-mile harness-racing track
- Three restaurants
- 38 table games
- 1,500 slots
However, Endeka Entertainment was having some difficulty drumming up both the $160 million needed to pay for it and approval from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB).
Plans for a casino-racetrack were dashed, but hope for a gaming facility of some kind in Lawrence County were revived in late 2017.
In October 2017, PA lawmakers passed comprehensive gambling expansion legislation that authorized several initiatives. This included online gambling, online lottery, and construction of up to 10 mini-casinos across the state.
Each mini casino can operate between 300 and 750 slot machines and 30 table games.
A few weeks after the law passed, Lawrence County sent all 13 of the state’s casino licensees a package including marketing information about the area. It was an invitation for them all to consider building a mini-casino there.
Mount Airy picks New Castle
In the state’s third round of auctions in February, Lawrence County got a bite. Operators of Mount Airy Casino Resort in Monroe County won Pennsylvania’s third mini casino auction with a bid of $21,188,888.88 and plans to build in a 15-mile radius around New Castle.
Now four months later, without much in the way of any further word from Mount Airy, once-burned-twice-shy Lawrence County officials are starting to worry.
Concerned New Castle Mayor Anthony Mastrangelo told the New Castle News he’s still making efforts to sell the area to Mount Airy. This includes sending officials an updated proposal package outlining what New Castle can do to save them money:
“We just haven’t heard from them. We don’t know if they’ve made any decisions.”
The county continues to push the proposed Lawrence Downs Casino and Racing Resort site as the best place for Mount Airy to build a mini-casino.
Mini-casino location rumors persist
However, Lawrence County commissioners chairman Dan Vogler is beginning to worry. Particularly in the absence of anything concrete, Vogler fears rumors it is considering other locations may be true:
“The latest that I’ve heard is they are still reviewing sites within their territory. I’ve heard rumors about where that might be, but so far they’re only rumors. I’ve been told they hope to have a decision to announce in early to mid-July.”
Rumors include a Lancaster Township site in neighboring Butler County. However, the township claims it has not approved plans for a casino there. Township supervisors told the local press they have been approached by a casino company that might want to build there. However, no applications have been filed.
Mount Airy representatives told the New Castle News they have selected a location. However, that is subject to change, and details won’t likely be available until September or October.
Now Lawrence County is in the uncomfortable position of having to continue to wait and see. The spot is particularly uncomfortable considering the county is 14 years into a process that has only yielded disappointment so far.
The history of Lawrence Downs
In May 2013, Penn National Gaming announced it would be partnering with Endeka to seek board approval. Penn National put up $50 million for the application fee. Plus, to keep things moving, it loaned Endeka $15 million. In return, Penn National got one-third ownership and the right to manage the facility once it opened.
The Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission granted the group a license to build the track. However, owners of the Presque Isle Downs and Casino racetrack and gaming facility, about 75 miles away in Erie, sued to prevent the project from moving forward.
Presque Isle claimed it stood to lose some $100 million in projected revenue if the Lawrence County racetrack and casino went ahead.
Endeka Entertainment and Penn National Gaming spent 2014 trying to convince the PGCB to grant it a casino license. But in March 2015, with the board still considering the proposal, Penn National Gaming walked away.
The company decided the region’s gaming market had become saturated. The board gave Penn National its $50 million back and the project appeared dead. Endeka cried foul, claiming Penn National killed its plans in an effort to protect its newly constructed Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course.
The Youngstown, Ohio property sits just across the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. However, it is a thoroughbred track and its casino houses video-lottery terminals only.
Lawrence Downs revived
The addition of new investors Joseph Procacci and Merit Management soon revived the Lawrence Downs Casino and Racing Resort project. The pair had previously combined to unsuccessfully apply for a Philadelphia casino license. Procacci ultimately bought out Endeka Entertainment.
However, in July 2016, PGCB shut the project down again. The board voted unanimously to deny the group’s casino license application. A move that effectively ended Lawrence County’s effort to see the casino-racetrack facility built.