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Penn National Breaks Ground on Columbus Casino

Despite not having a firmed up agreement with city officials as to how to pump water in the proposed casino facility as well as how to dispose and treat sewage from that same facility, Penn National Gaming Inc. is moving ahead with its plans to break ground on the proposed $400 million Columbus, Ohio casino. In fact, the company is still in a heated court battle with city officials after it filed a complaint earlier this month alleging the city government of pressuring the company to bend to its whims resulting to setbacks in construction and potential opening. Penn National President Tim Wilmott expressed optimism as he addressed the assembled crowd during the short ceremony. “I’ve never found it so difficult to spend $400 million, but we still believe in Central Ohio,” said Wilmott who only mentioned the current dilemma facing Penn National Gaming in passing. As expected, city officials were not present to attend the program.

Wilmott’s remarks were the abbreviated form of a debacle that has lasted for months and centers around the efforts of Penn National Gaming to put up the Hollywood Casino Columbus project in the area only to be met with “harsh and oppressive” response by Columbus city officials. Penn has already done considerable work in getting the proposal to where it currently is, courting Ohio voters to approve a total of four Ohio casinos – Cleveland, Toledo, Cincinnati, and Columbus – during a vote in November 2009. The hiccup with the city government began when Penn National proposed to move the original location of the casino from the Arena District to the old Delphi Automotive Plant on the west side of the city closer to Franklin Township. The city responded to those actions by not approving Penn’s request for water supply and sewage treatment from the plant, insisting that Penn should honor its initial word of annexing the property into the city.

Another complication to the already convoluted story is the Columbus Dispatch’s petition to refuse a zoning certificate for the casino property until Penn has ironed out its differences with the local government. A subsidiary of the Dispatch Printing Co., the Columbus Dispatch has always been a Penn nemesis since the casino was still first proposed. “We are perplexed and trying to figure out their motive,” said Wilmott in reference to the Dispatch’s actions. He adds that the likely conjecture is one of direct opposition to the idea of having a casino in Columbus by the high honchos at the company despite the fact that citizens have already voted to approve the construction of such a facility. The approval was re-validated by the many that attended the groundbreaking ceremony as everyone extolled the ability of such a big project to provide jobs for locals looking to get back into the workforce after the gripping effects of the last recession.

For Chris Haydocy, for example, his auto dealership which sits right beside the casino site will benefit from the influx of new people coming into the area. Haydocy says this is one of the reasons why community leaders went out of their way to try to bring the casino to the west side nearer to local businesses. Haydocy cites a recent label on the area as the “emptiest neighborhood in 2009” after high residential and commercial vacancies pushed a lot of the businesses and people away from where the casino will soon rise. All in all, a total of 3,500 jobs is expected to be created for the construction phase while another 2,000 will benefit from permanent employment once the facility opens in the second half of 2012 following an 18-month construction plan. Penn insists that more than 90 percent of the 2,000 permanent jobs will go to residents in the area who are still reeling from the last recession.

The expected tax revenue amounting to $63 in annual payments would also go a long way into helping public school districts continue running despite a tight state budget. “Not only is it a company of integrity,” said Lewis Smoot, CEO of the Smoot Construction Co based in Columbus,“but it has a real commitment to diversity and inclusion. This will be a lot of jobs at a time when we need to bring our economy back.”