NORTHFIELD: Jim Joyner has raced horses at Northfield Park since 1972.
He has seen the glory years of the harness track when fans overflowed the grandstand. And he has seen the low points in recent years, as crowds dwindled and drivers and trainers fled to neighboring states where race prizes are higher thanks to casino gambling.
So Wednesday morning, Joyner, 59, of Doylestown, stood inside the grandstand eagerly awaiting the formal news conference that Northfield Park and Hard Rock International are partnering to build a $275 million video slots and entertainment complex next to the racetrack.
“It’s the greatest thing to ever happen to this place,” Joyner said.
An enthusiastic crowd of horse owners, racetrack workers, political leaders and interested onlookers attended the announcement, which included an acoustic two-song performance by Everclear frontman Art Alexakis. They praised the business marriage and said they can’t wait for video slots to arrive.
Horse owners, especially, are excited to see race purses increase because of the video slots revenue.
“I don’t think it’s the complete answer to everything, but it’s definitely going to help,” said James Ducett, 31, who has a stable at the track. “Something has to happen. The horsemen are starving. Look at the states that do have [slots] — everything has improved vastly, at least for the horse-racing industry.”
Northfield Park owner Brock Milstein and Hard Rock officials two weeks ago announced a deal to build a Hard Rock-branded gaming facility at the track. On Wednesday in the Trackside sports bar at Northfield Park, Hard Rock Chairman Jim Allen unveiled artist renderings and a proposed floor plan.
The glitzy, contemporary design includes a giant Hard Rock guitar on the outside of the building and a gaming area with 2,500 video slots, multiple restaurants, Hard Rock Cafe, Hard Rock gift shop, music venue and comedy club.
“This is pretty incredible,” Milstein said, as every flat-screen television in the sports bar showed the words “Hard Rock.”
The Hard Rock Cafes alone — thanks to substantial displays of music memorabilia — are tourist attractions.
“What we’re trying to bring is a destination that is not just about [video slots],” said Allen, who jokingly noted the coincidence that he grew up in Northfield, N.J. “We’re trying to create a true entertainment destination that will be a complement to the success that the Milstein family has had here at Northfield Park.”
He wouldn’t name the restaurants or comedy club, but said there is no shortage of partners interested in joining the effort. The music venue might seat 1,000 to 2,000 people with shows 100 to 150 nights a year, Allen said.
Hard Rock, based in Orlando, has loyal fans who travel thousands of miles to visit its venues and buy collectibles, such as pins and T-shirts. The company plans to create merchandise specific to Northfield.
Contingent on lawsuit
Hard Rock operates more than 170 venues in 53 countries, including 15 hotel/casinos. Northfield — a small village with about 3,700 people — is joining a Hard Rock family that includes major cities such as Las Vegas, Toronto, Beijing, Paris, London and Singapore.
Northfield Park is the company’s first venture at a racetrack. The deal is contingent on Ohio winning an ongoing lawsuit opposing the video slots effort.
Construction would take about a year after the suit is settled, Allen said.
Ohio is on the verge of becoming the 23rd state with commercial casinos or racinos, the industry term used to describe a combined horse track and slots parlor.
Four Las Vegas-style casinos are set to open in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo. The Ohio Lottery Commission is overseeing the process of putting video slots in the state’s seven horse racetracks.
“We don’t come here today thinking that we are entitled to anything,” said Allen, who also serves as the chief executive of gaming operations for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. “We come here today in a true partnership. We come here today representing truly one of the world’s most iconic brands, and we hope and we believe that this relationship will take us all to another level.”
Allen has more than 32 years of experience working in the gaming and entertainment industry. That experience, he said, has shown Hard Rock can make an economic impact on a local community. He added that the company, started in 1971, was founded on the principle “Love all. Serve all.”
“We will be involved in anything that can help grow the community,” he said. “We will be involved in any philanthropic effort that’s brought to us. It’s a commitment that comes from me, the chairman.”
Summit County Councilman Nick Kostandaras, who represents Northfield, called the racino venture one of the biggest economic development projects in the state.
“This is, in my opinion, a great day for the village of Northfield,” he said.
Wyatt Irvine, 33, who drives horses at the track, and his girlfriend, Debbie Hrouda, 36, both of Broadview Heights, were especially excited that Northfield Park is teaming up with Hard Rock.
“It’s just a big-time name and it brings publicity,” Irvine said.
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com.