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Off-Track Betting Sought

Manassas Park Voters to Decide

By Michele Clock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page PW01

Colonial Downs racetrack is trying to resurrect support for off-track betting in Manassas Park, a proposal that city voters narrowly rejected eight years ago.

Last week, the New Kent County, Va., company formally announced plans to launch a petition drive to get the item on the city's Nov. 2 ballot. If it is approved by voters, company officials said, they will open a sports bar-style betting facility in the city. Several sites are being considered, and it could open within a year, but officials would not disclose the locations.

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The first step is to collect 248 signatures, which represent 5 percent of registered city voters, to place the item on the ballot, said city Registrar Patricia Brendel. The signatures must be collected, certified and submitted to Prince William Circuit Court by Sept. 3, she said.

In 1996, Manassas Park voters defeated by 74 votes a proposal that would have brought a large restaurant and betting parlor to the city. Since 1992, Northern Virginia ballot initiatives to allow off-track betting have been defeated, usually by large margins, in at least six jurisdictions.

A bill was signed into state law this year that allows Colonial Downs Inc. to expand the number of off-track betting centers it operates in Virginia from six to 10. The company already runs five such facilities -- including two in the Richmond area and one each in Hampton, Chesapeake and Alberta, in Brunswick County. A sixth is expected to open in October in Vinton, a town near Roanoke, said Ian Stewart, Colonial Downs president.

Manassas Park Mayor F.C. "Frank" Jones Jr. (R) said that he and members of the City Council discussed the issue and have taken a neutral position.

"It's not something that we need to make a decision on," Jones said. "It's for the citizens to make a decision on. The governing body's role will be to gather as much information as we can and make sure it's in the hands of the citizens."

Jones said city staff members are researching how other Colonial Downs facilities have affected local jurisdictions.

"The initial reports say that in . . . the other jurisdictions, there has been no increase in crime, no increase in city services and that they do generate revenues, donate to charitable organizations and hire off-duty police officers and sheriff deputies as their security forces," Vice Mayor Kevin P. Brendel said.

In a letter to Manassas Park City Manager David W. Reynal dated Aug. 9, Stewart wrote that if approved and built, the center will generate $558,000 in tax revenue for the city. In addition, the letter said, it will bring 70 full- and part-time jobs with an annual payroll of $1.5 million. The center would spend an estimated $550,000 in the city annually for cleaning services, supplies and other costs associated with doing business, Stewart wrote.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said Friday that he thinks the company is "trying to prey" on Manassas Park.

"Whenever gambling comes, bad things come," Wolf said. "That's why I've been opposed to it coming to Virginia."

Northern Virginia is the "envy" of the state -- with low unemployment rates, good schools and safe streets -- said Wolf, who sponsored the bill that created the National Commission on Gambling. The commission was created to study the social and economic effect of gambling on governments, communities and social institutions.

"Generally you don't find many businesses where you've got gambling," he said. "By having gambling in your community, it's a turnoff or disincentive for good businesses to come to your area. . . . Why would you want to bring something like this that is known for breaking up families and increasing crime?"

Racehorse gambling was illegal in Virginia until 1988. Colonial Downs has the only license in the state to run a year-round parimutuel track or satellite betting offices.

Stewart said that Wolf is entitled to his opinion, but that the company's track record is excellent.

"We don't bring any crime or problems," he said. "We encourage people to talk to any officials in any of the jurisdictions [that have the centers]. We provide significant revenues and a nice entertainment venue; it's fun. And, obviously, we'll let the voters decide."


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