Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Fort Erie Race Track Update
Buffalo News reporter Robert J. Summers wrote today of the recent developments by the Town of Fort Erie and the Ontario Government in an attempt to save Fort Erie Race Track from closure and sale. Fort Erie is the sixth oldest continuous operation race track in North America. For the geographically challenged, Fort Erie sits across the Niagara River from downtown Buffalo. It is home to the Grade 1 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, a race won last year by a fan favorite, Harlem Rocker. The great Northern Dancer was ridden by Ron Turcotte in his first victory as a two-year-old at Fort Erie Race Track.
FORT ERIE, Ont. — Like a desperate horseplayer fashioning a long-shot trifecta on the last race of the day, Fort Erie officials on Tuesday unveiled a complicated new plan to save the 111-year-old Fort Erie Race Track.
Unfortunately for the hundreds of employees and horsemen who make their living at the track, the plan comes with a short-term deadline (Monday at noon) and needs a big loan from the Ontario provincial government.
“We need the Province’s help to maintain this critical business in Fort Erie,” James Thibert, General Manager of the Fort Erie Economic Development & Tourism Corp., told a news conference.
It took Thibert more than an hour to explain details of the proposal, which calls for purchase of the thoroughbred track and surrounding properties from Nordic Gaming Corp. for $35 million. The money would come from a 40-year government loan backed by a mortgage on the facility’s 350 acres of property.
Nordic officials — who learned of the plan on Monday — said they need a $3.2 million down payment by noon Monday. Nordic’s license to operate a race track expires at the end of January.
The proposed deal calls for:
• Establishment of a not-for-profit corporation to operate the track.
• Agreement with Toronto’s Woodbine Race Track and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. — which operates the slot machine casinos at both tracks — to transfer 200 machines from Fort Erie to the more-crowded and profitable Woodbine for three years.
• Agreement with the Town of Fort Erie to contribute half of the revenue, up to $1 million a year, from its share of slot machine money to operate the track and pay down the debt.
Kim Craitor, the area’s representative (Member of Provincial Parliament) in the Ontario legislature in Toronto, endorsed the plan as an “unprecedented viable solution” and said he would deliver it as soon as possible to “the right people” in Toronto.
The proposal is the latest in a long series of efforts by local officials to get the province to assist the track’s live racing program, which has lost about $4 million a year for the past three seasons. So far, the proposals have received no response from the legislature at Queen’s Park.
As Thibert said, “The good news is on the 15th [of January, a previous deadline], they [Parliament] gave us no answer. But they refused to give us a ‘no.’ ”
Thibert emphasized that the government is being asked for a loan, not a “bailout.”
“It’s a loan,” Thibert said. “The Province . . . should underwrite and guarantee the loan as it will be secured against real property which is bound to increase in value over time.”
“Interest earned [by the province on the loan] is far less than costs associated with closure and layoffs,” he said, noting that the track and casino employs about 650 people while racing provides jobs for about 1,600 horsemen and their employees.
Thibert emphasized that Nordic does not require a check for the $3.2 million down payment on Monday, just a commitment that the money would come.
“The potential danger of closing will be significant,” said Kimberly Walpole Zanko, president of the Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce. “We’re supported by tourism. [Closing] will have a domino effect.”
The Turk thanks the Buffalo News and Bob Summers, The Happy Handicapper, for the reuse of this article.