Day At The Track

Harness racing boss hopes for survival

03:58 AM 22 Dec 2018 NZDT
Comment (...) Tweet Share Email Print
Hugh Mitchell
Hugh Mitchell the CEO of the Western Fair District looks out at their well known racetrack on Wednesday February 28, 2018.
Mike Hensen Photo

Amid fears the loss of a proposed $140-million hotel-casino complex could cripple it, London's Western Fair District is already banking on other money —  not all of it certain — to keep the 150-year-old organization alive.

Winded, but not down.

Amid fears the loss of a proposed $140-million hotel-casino complex could cripple it, London’s Western Fair District is already banking on other money —  not all of it certain — to keep the 150-year-old organization alive.

Part of that hope rests on the Ontario government, which the chief executive is counting on to extend a helping hand to the Western Fair’s horse-racing track, as it has done elsewhere in the province, even though Doug Ford’s government is battling a huge budget shortfall.

Hugh Mitchell, president of the Western Fair District, said the organization asked the government seven weeks ago to shore up horse racing in London if the private casino operator that runs the slots pulls out of the site.

Gateway Casinos and Entertainment, which had been locked in long-running negotiations to get a better lease deal at Western Fair, this week confirmed it has signed a lease in southwest London that will take it out of the fair district, planning instead to build a new casino complex along Wonderland Road near Wharncliffe Road.

Under the existing lease for the slots casino at the fairgrounds, Western Fair District rakes in $6.2 million a year — money that may be gone for good after the lease expires in March 2020 unless the Progressive Conservative government steps in to help fill the loss.

“There’s a silver lining in every cloud, and we’ll find it,” Mitchell said Thursday, after issuing a news release that stressed Gateway’s move puts the fair’s horse racing “in jeopardy.”

“The important thing is that we’re not asking for any more than the current lease than was negotiated with government for racing,” Mitchell said.

But whether that help will come is far from a sure thing. The Ford government faces huge hurdles trying to whip Ontario’s budget red ink, which the province’s fiscal watchdog says will rise to $12.3 billion this year — half a billion dollars more than originally forecast.

Asked by The Free Press whether the province plans to support horse racing at Western Fair, one London-area MPP in Ford’s cabinet was sparse on details.

“The PC government understands the importance of live racing in Ontario, including here in London.  We will continue to support the industry moving forward,” Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek wrote in an emailed response.

“However, this is a matter between Gateway, the City of London and the Western Fair. We’ll continue to monitor the situation closely,” added Yurek, the Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP.

Support for horse racing, meaning help to pay racing purses that support the industry, was one of the reasons Ontario first located its mini-casinos with slot machines, like London’s, at racing locations.

RELATED

Ontario has since moved to get out of directly running gambling operations, hiving off big chunks of the business to private operators like Gateway, which was awarded gambling rights for much of Southwestern Ontario.

The government announced this fall that slots will remain in a number of communities where the racing industry depends on the revenue, including in Hiawatha in Sarnia — just minutes away from a new casino opened by Gateway in Point Edward.

That’s a good sign, politicians said Thursday.

“Both the Western Fair and the city and the province seem to be committed to a vibrant harness racing industry,” said Coun. Josh Morgan, who also sits on the Western Fair board, but spoke in his capacity as a city politician.

“Aside from harness racing, I’m not concerned about the viability of the Western Fair as an organization,” he said, adding it continues to diversify and add other business attractions, including its hockey arena, animal and trade shows and its farmers’ market.

Morgan added Gateway’s southwest location will be a “benefit for taxpayers” because it’s a fully-taxable site.

“The business units still stand on their own merits,” Mitchell said, adding there are events at the fairgrounds every weekend from September through June.

Mayor Ed Holder weighed in on Gateway’s move, saying he has “a lot of confidence” in leadership at Western Fair to keep the organization profitable.

“Western Fair has been around for 150 years, and part of the strength is that it continues to reinvent itself. I’ve lived in London long enough to see them make great strides,” he said, citing the slots, market, arena and Agriplex.

Horse racing has had a “see-saw” relationship with provincial governments, Holder said, noting Gateway’s move could be a challenge but that it’s still early to figure out next steps for the Western Fair.

Keeping Gateway’s investment — “hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs” — in London is good for the city, he added.

“Businesses have the right to choose their own location, what works best, and I have to applaud Gateway for their strong financial commitments to the city,” Holder said.

The British Columbia-based company needs rezoning for its new southwestern site before it can build a casino along Wonderland Road.

“Councillors want to keep the jobs in London, have the direct investment in London. Gateway, to their credit, wants to be in London,” Holder said.

“My feeling is that council will look at one of two choices: Either they’ll (Gateway) be in London at a place of their choosing, or not. To me, that’s the clear thing. I’m not sure that it’s government’s place to tell business where they should do their business.”

Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

Reprinted with permission of The London Free Press

Comment (...) Tweet Share Email Print

Read More News About...

Stallion Name

Next article: