You could never accuse Prince Williams County folks of being indecisive about gambling. Once they heard one racetrack might be coming--and then another--people set their minds firm: for or against. They've heard all the arguments before.
Betting on ponies might be one small town's lucrative venture or a black hole destined to suck its money. It might be a fitting prospect for horse country or a dangerous vice poised to invade Northern Virginia. But any way you see it, it's a reason to get real excited.
Horse racing seemed a moot point in Prince William after Manassas Park shot down the prospects of a gambling parlor two years ago. That is, until Tuesday, when Colonial Downs Inc. announced it wants to build a steeplechase track and betting parlor in Dumfries.
Chris Brown, the mayor of Dumfries, is still enthusiastic about the idea, though he has tempered his thoughts a touch since the news first broke. Dumfries Town Council members are cautiously impressed by Colonial Downs's proposal, and they are the ones who will decide the issue by voting on whether to rezone land for the track.
Meanwhile, a number of county supervisors and other local officials are rallying against the track on moral and economic grounds. They say it could be the death of Dumfries. And they question the motives of Colonial Downs, the only parimutuel horse racing track owner in the state, a company that has had its own financial troubles and spats with the Virginia Racing Commission that licenses it.
To complicate things further, an organization headed by the family of James J. Wilson, of Middleburg, announced Thursday that it wants to open a horse racing course on the northernmost tip of the county, a move the chairman of the Racing Commission says essentially pits the two would-be tracks against each other. Both are under contract to buy land. Rezoning for the Wilson proposal would be determined not by the Town Council but by county supervisors.
All of this is happening in the shadow of a looming deadline: in November, the window of opportunity will close when a county referendum allowing tracks and betting parlors hits its five-year mark. In addition, the Virginia Racing Commission, which must approve any track, has set a September deadline for applications. Commission officials said they have not received any formal proposals.
The struggle is not new to Northern Virginia since the state approved parimutuel betting in 1988. Proposals for off-track betting parlors lost in Fairfax City, Falls Church, Alexandria and Arlington in the early 1990s. But the industry has not stopped trying to gain a foothold into this lucrative area.
Although voters in Prince William approved referendums on betting parlors and racetracks in 1989 and again in 1994, efforts on behalf of racetracks and betting parlors have not been successful here.
The most recent serious effort was in 1996 in Manassas Park, when voters defeated a Colonial Downs proposal for an off-site betting parlor by a slim margin, despite the support of several prominent city officials. Those officials said the parlor would generate money to fix dilapidated schools. But a forceful band of political and religious heavyweights, many of whom were from outside the city, waged war.
With two racing concerns announcing plans last week, local officials and anti-gambling activists are again jumping into the ring, citing social, moral and economic concerns. Under the plan from Colonial Downs, racing at its Dumfries track would take place only about 20 days a year, but customers could bet on races from all around the world via satellite seven days a week.
Opponents say the proposed Dumfries steeplechase track is just a cover for off-site betting, which is the real moneymaker. And that, they say, is just plain distasteful.
It's "obvious that the sole purpose is disguised," said county Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville).
If so, they add, then whatever benefits might come from following Virginia's fine tradition of steeplechase racing will be outweighed by the drawbacks of a gambling atmosphere. Supervisors Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt (At-Large) and Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) both said they are opposed to the idea of a betting parlor in the county.
Brown said he is not rushing into anything but can't help but envision an enticing sight when he thinks of a nicely groomed racetrack with a restaurant and adjacent ballfields in place of the commercial construction landfill near the entrance to the historic town. Jeffrey P. Jacobs, the chief executive of Colonial Downs, said the track would generate $60 million annually and add about 200 jobs.
Brown said it is not a moral issue. It's an economic opportunity, he said, and anyone who doesn't want to gamble doesn't have to gamble.
"You may or may not decide to go and look at one of the new movies that opens this summer, right?" he said. "That's the nature of entertainment."
But how much of an economic opportunity is it? Bill Kincaid, a lobbyist for the Virginia General Assembly who helped defeat riverboat gambling earlier this decade, said the very premise of a lucrative gambling parlor is a sham--for anyone other than the owner.
"If you want something to add jobs and bring money to the area, you don't bring in a gambling facility to take money out of the area," he said. "It's just absolutely hands-down bad economics."
Colonial Downs has long considered Northern Virginia the place to revive an enterprise that has not been as successful as it had hoped. Its racetrack in New Kent County--the only horse racetrack in the state--lost $5.3 million last year.
And Jacobs has had disagreements with the commission over how much revenue from off-site betting should go to prize money for horse owners and trainers. The commission says he has been keeping way too much for himself.
"He's just giving them pitiful crumbs," said commission Chairwoman Robin Williams.
Colonial Downs must apply to the commission by September and obtain a license before the referendum expires in November in order to open a Dumfries track.
"Given Colonial Downs's well-publicized financial problems, we will look very closely at the proposed financing of any such project," Williams said.
Williams said the commission could license both, one or neither of the two racetracks that are on the drawing boards for Prince William County. But because they are, although different in size, both turf tracks, she said it's "less likely" that both will be approved.
As for the second racetrack proposal, if the Wilson family doesn't secure a site here, it will not be for lack of trying. An earlier application was given land-use permission by the county but was denied a license by the commission in 1994, said Mike Vanderpool, a lawyer for the family.
Unlike Colonial Downs, the Wilsons' proposal would offer at least 100 days of live racing a year, which might seem to give it an edge because it de-emphasizes the off-site betting parlor that would also be open year-round.
"I think there's a big difference between a betting parlor and a track that is offering a quality entertainment experience," Vanderpool said.
But the one-half mile "European style" turf course suggested for 250 acres between Route 15 and Logmill Road may have trouble getting past a wary Board of County Supervisors. The Wilsons requested a special-use permit July 1.
Wilbourn, in whose district the Wilsons' track would be located, has already said a racetrack would be incompatible with the proposed site. The area is residential, and Logmill Road can support little traffic, he said.
"It's right in housing area subdivisions," he said. "I wouldn't put a manufacturing site next to residences, so why would I put a racetrack next to residences?"