CLEVELAND - While cats are said to have nine lives, Thistledown Race Track may have more. The 87-year-old track has survived the depression, several recessions, prohibition, World War II, a fire that destroyed the track's clubhouse and grandstand in 1944, and a half dozen ownership changes.
It continued to host races long after its Emery Road neighbor to the south, Randall Park Race Track, closed in 1968, was bulldozed and reopened again in 1976 as the largest shopping mall in America, only to close in 2010.
But in recent months it appeared the track might become a victim of the very thing that was meant to save it, expanded gambling in Ohio. The decision to add slots to the state's seven horse racing tracks was seen as a way to save the industry that was rapidly fading because of the higher purses offered by surrounding states with gambling at their tracks.
But that gambling expansion meant northeast Ohio would go from having no casino options, to eventually three.
Thistledown sits just 15 miles southeast of the Horseshoe Casino on Public Square and about six miles north of Northfield Park, which announced plans to partner with Hard Rock Entertainment on a slots-only casino at the harness racing track.
Thistledown is owned by Rock Ohio Caesars, the partnership formed between Dan Gilbert's Rock Gaming and Caesars Entertainment. Rock has made it clear they are considering moving the track in its entirety to the Akron Canton area, but it is a relocation they stopped short of committing to when applying to the state for a video lottery terminal (VLT) license.
Under the agreement reached Wednesday, Rock will pay a $50 million licensing fee to the state to add VLTs to Thistledown. The racino will open at the North Randall track next spring while they consider whether to relocate the track to the Akron-Canton area at a future date. If that comes to be, Rock will pay the state an additional $25 million fee. Penn National’s agreement with the state requires them to pay $75 million each to move its two tracks from Columbus and Toledo, respectively to Youngstown and Dayton.
A third of the track sits in Warrensville Heights and Mayor Brad Sellers is hoping that’s a check the tracks owners never have to write. Sellers believes keeping the track where it is makes sense.
"All the real estate characteristics you would want in good property it has," said Sellers referring to its access to Interstates 480 and 271. "I think that this thing is ready to be uncorked, I think it's prime real estate.”
He said local, state and federal leaders need to sit down and map out a plan for the area that has been hit hard by the loss of Randall Park Mall and the businesses around it.
The difficulty that exists right now is trying to plan for what additional services the new facility may require while not knowing how long they will need them.
“I would prefer if we’re going to go forward, stay here, let’s start that now.”
But Sellers said if there plan is to leave for Akron-Canton, he’d like to start planning for the future of the site.
“I can’t stay in limbo.”
Sellers said he's been in contact with Gilbert, and hopes to sit down with him and the mayor of North Randall in the near future to begin the process of making their case.
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