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Once Vilified Penn National Now Being Praised
for Move of Casino to West Side of Columbus

By Robert Vitale, The Columbus Dispatch, OhioMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 20, 2010--A casino on Columbus' West Side might look radically different from the one that Penn National Gaming Inc. has contemplated for the Arena District.

In the Arena District, the company would build on 24 acres, about the size of Schiller Park. At the former Delphi Corp. auto-parts plant, it would have 123 acres at its disposal.

In the Arena District, Penn National had planned to include restaurants, a sports bar and an entertainment lounge in 300,000 square feet of building. At Delphi, executives say a hotel and other features might be added as well.

"It opens new possibilities," company spokesman Eric Schippers said yesterday after Penn National formally announced its desire to shift locations 6 miles to the west of the casino site that was approved by Ohio voters last fall.

Penn National locked up an option yesterday morning to buy the Delphi site from the Troy, Mich.-based company that shut it down in 2007.

There are still some mighty big steps ahead: Ohio voters must approve a new constitutional amendment in May to allow the move, and the area in Franklin Township still must be annexed into Columbus. But city officials and West Side supporters were happy with the first step taken yesterday.

Company President Tim Wilmott said the location with easy access from I-270 and welcoming neighbors offered a quicker construction timetable. Penn National wants to open its casino in 2012.

" 'Shovel-ready' is music to every West Side person's ears," said Chris Haydocy, whose family car dealership looks out on the Delphi site where 5,500 people once worked near W. Broad Street and Georgesville Road, east of I-270.

Penn National has promised that a casino in Columbus would employ thousands of people, from construction through operation. That was the main selling point for West Side-area business owners and residents who mounted an intensive three-week campaign to win over executives who once insisted a move from the Arena District was not negotiable.

In Columbus, which rejected the pro-gambling amendment endorsed by the rest of Ohio, once-vilified Penn National has changed some minds, too.

Wilmott received applause and praise from city officials, state legislators and West Side leaders at yesterday's announcement.

"I have to give them credit for stepping up and looking at those sites," said Mayor Michael B. Coleman, who voted against the 2009 casino amendment and opposed an Arena District development.

"They worked in good faith," he said.

Wilmott said Penn National will move forward in the Arena District if an amendment to move the location is rejected by Ohio voters. The campaign likely will be spearheaded by Stand Up Columbus, a group formed to push for a move away from the Arena District.

Mike Curtin, associate publisher emeritus for The Dispatch, is a co-chairman of the group. Capitol Square, the real-estate arm of The Dispatch Printing Company, owns 20 percent of the Arena District development.

Wilmott said Penn National still considers the Arena District a good place for a casino and will be prepared to build there if a new amendment is rejected across the state.

He said that what many saw as the Delphi site's biggest drawback -- polluted soil from 61 years as an auto-parts plant -- became an asset to Penn National.

Delphi's status as a former industrial site reinforced the message of last fall's pro-casino campaign that developments in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo would revitalize Ohio's urban areas, he said.

In choosing Delphi, the company turned down undeveloped farmland on the South Side.

State lawmakers said they would act quickly on another amendment that would remove the Arena District casino site from the Ohio Constitution and replace it with the Delphi land.

Three-fifths of the House and Senate must approve a new amendment for the May 4 statewide ballot, and there's a Feb. 3 deadline to do so.

The first hearing will take place this morning before the Senate Government Oversight Committee, said Chairman Jon Husted, a Republican from Kettering.

rvitale@dispatch.com

Penn National has promised that a casino in Columbus would employ thousands of people, from construction through operation. That was the main selling point for West Side-area business owners and residents.

On the Web --See what people have to say about the casino move in a video at Dispatch.com/multimedia.

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To see more of The Columbus Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.columbusdispatch.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

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