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Erie ready to answer Lady Slots’ siren call!

Oct 1, 2002 5:04 AM

   The jangling of slot machines is raising the dead from graveyards far removed from the garish glare of the Vegas Strip.

   In remote Erie, Pennsylvania, in the far northwestern reaches of the Keystone state, two dismal racetrack failures were buried quietly during the roaring good times of the 1980s.

   One of them, Commodore Downs, lived between 1972 and 1982 and died in agony.

   The other, Erie Downs, had a far shorter life, barely breathing between 1986 and 1987 before expiring.

Now a resurrection is underway. And the resurrector is not some bungling amateur.

   He is Ted Arneault, the president and CEO of MTR Gaming Group, the parent of Mountaineer Park in Chester, West Virginia.

   Arneault is an accomplished undertaker and restorer, having taken the dead body of Mountaineer Park and, with the magic and alchemy of 3,000 slot machines, having turned it from a corpse into a living, robust 800-pound gorilla.

   Last Thursday (Sept. 26) the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission listened to Arneault make a pitch to build a new racetrack-for $56 million-on the dry bones of the two tracks that died horrible deaths in Erie.

   The commission also listened to representatives of Pennsylvania’s four existing racetracks-thoroughbred tracks Penn National and Philadelphia Park and harness racing operations The Meadows and Pocono Downs, all of who objected to a license for Arneault in Erie.

   Aware of all those big bucks seeping out of Pennsylvania to West Virginia (and Michigan and Ontario and Delaware and New Jersey and other slot locations) the commissioners, unanimously and without dissent, voted to give Arneault his Erie license.

   They apparently believed his testimony that he will build his track-to be called Presque Isle Downs-whether Pennsylvania legalizes slot machines or not next year.

   If they did, they also believe in the tooth fairy, and I am planning to offer them the Brooklyn Bridge as their next acquisition.

   Ted Arneault may have told the commissioners that he will build Presque Isle slots or not, and may have even done so with a straight face. But with the possible exception of Frank Stronach, there is no one around these days who would plunk down $56 million on a track and entertainment center in a place like Erie, Pennsylvania.

   I am a Pennsylvanian, and I know Erie, and despite the lollypop dreams of developing it as a major tourist attraction it is not a place that is likely to become a major tourist destination.

   One enthusiastic local booster-a politician, by the way-bubbled over at the prospect, saying, “Tourism is big in northwestern Pennsylvania. We have a lot of outdoor activities-skiing, fishing, boating, hiking and Presque Isle. We have a lot of things to do, but we don’t have gambling. People are going to Niagara Falls or to Michigan or West Virginia to gamble.”

   A more realistic observer of the scene, a Pennsylvania racing official had a shorter, more succinct view: “There’s nobody there,” he said.

   Which is true. But Ted Arneault knows that there was no one around Mountaineer Park, either, until the siren call of the slots started drawing them there, from out of the woodwork, and from populous Pittsburgh, less than an hour to the east.

   So it was with glee that he got the go-ahead last Thursday, and it was with discreet caution that he announced he will start to build “in early 2003” and be ready to race in June of 2004.

   Only a cynic might note that “early 2003” is after this year’s elections in Pennsylvania, where both candidates for governor favor slots for Pennsylvania tracks. And perhaps only a realist will say that if slots for tracks aren’t approved in Pennsylvania, don’t bother to go to Erie looking for a track or an entertainment park.

   As of now, however, Ted Arneault is about to become a Pennsylvania track operator, and he announced triumphantly, “We are ready to rock and roll. We think this will be great for Erie and great for Pennsylvania. I think Erie will catch on fire as a tourist attraction.

   It is hard to imagine Erie catching on fire, and I’m not sure Presque Isle Downs will be great for Erie or Pennsylvania. It will, however, be great for Edson (Ted) Arneault, and may be consoling for those mistaken earlier pioneers who thought they could make racing-without slots-a go in Erie.