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Kansas Speedway casino plan passes state muster

Developers also pledged to bring a second NASCAR Sprint Cup race to the track.

- The Kansas City Star
Tuesday, Dec. 01, 2009

TOPEKA, Kan. -- It wasn’t the glitziest proposal for a casino in Wyandotte County. Or the biggest or the most expensive.

But the planned Hollywood Casino had the virtue of being the only proposal left standing Tuesday after the recession forced developers with grander visions to drop out earlier this year.

That proved to be enough — along with deep-pocketed, experienced developers and a prime spot overlooking the Kansas Speedway — for a state board to unanimously approve the $386 million project.

“Is it ideal? No. But we understand the constraints of the economic times,” said board member Jackie Vietti. “It’s in the better interests of the state to move forward now.”

Construction is expected to begin late next year, with an opening set for early 2012.

The casino will be built near Turn 2 of the speedway. It will include 2,300 slot machines, 86 table games and 28,000 square feet of dining and entertainment options. A second phase calls for a 250-room hotel.

All told, the project represents an investment of more than half a billion dollars. The project is expected to create 2,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs in Wyandotte County.

As part of its sales pitch, the developers also pledged to bring a second NASCAR Sprint Cup race and a Grand-Am race to the track.

A group of delighted residents and a bottle of champagne greeted Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon when he returned home Tuesday. Supporters said they were tired of seeing so many Kansas license plates in the parking lots of Missouri casinos.

“We have been donating quite a bit of money to Missouri over the years, and it’s time to bring some of it back,” said Beverly J. Darby of Kansas City, Kan.

The project is a joint venture of the speedway’s owners, International Speedway Corp., and Penn National Gaming, a Pennsylvania-based company that operates casinos around the United States, including the Argosy Casino in Riverside.

The developers said they’ll seek private financing for the project, but can pay for it themselves if necessary.

A consultant hired by the state estimated that the casino would generate $203 million of gambling revenues in its first year. The state will get a minimum 22 percent cut of the gross revenue. Another 5 percent will go to Wyandotte County government and a fund set up to combat compulsive gambling.

Tuesday’s vote is nearly the final step in a long effort to bring a casino to Wyandotte County. The developers still must undergo state background checks in order to get licensed, and must have final design details approved by local officials.

But the developers said those are minor obstacles.

“This was really the final hoop to jump through,” said Tim Wilmott, president of Penn National Gaming. “Now it’s full speed ahead.”

Board members said they scrutinized the speedway proposal as if it were up against competition.

Still, several board members questioned the developers’ decision to delay building a hotel. State lawmakers said an adjacent hotel was needed to attract out-of-state tourists when they authorized a casino for Wyandotte County in 2007.

Steven Snyder, Penn National senior vice president, assured that the hotel will be built when the economy recovers. In the meantime, Snyder said the casino will work out partnerships with nearby hotels and arrange a shuttle service to and from the casino.

It amounts to a “virtual hotel,” he told the board.

But that term puzzled some board members, who worried the developers might be hedging their bet.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing in my entire life,” said board member Jack Brier. “Do a lot of people stay in virtual hotels?”

To assuage those concerns, developers already had agreed to pay an annual penalty of roughly $2 million to Wyandotte County if hotel construction hasn’t started within two years of the casino’s opening.

“The market will dictate a hotel,” predicted board member James Bergfalk. “I have faith that at the right time we’ll have that hotel.”

The project already has approval from the Wyandotte County Board of Commissioners.

After years of failed efforts, Kansas lawmakers authorized a single casino for each of four regions of the state. Under state law, private companies build and operate the facilities, but the state controls the operations. The review board selects the developers.

Several quickly stepped forward to pitch their own visions for a casino in Wyandotte County. But almost all walked away in the midst of the recession. International Speedway and Penn later joined forces behind a single plan.

“We had bigger proposals, more glitz and more flash,” said board chairman Matt All. “And then everything changed.”

Also Tuesday, the review board delayed a final vote on a casino proposal for an area south of Wichita to give developers time to revise their plans.

The first casino built since the law passed is set to open this month in Dodge City.

The Star’s Dawn Bormann contributed to this report. To reach David Klepper, call 785-354-1388 or send e-mail to dklepper@kcstar.com.

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