As they rushed to meet the first in a series of deadlines last week, two groups trying to establish horse racing in neighboring Prince William County witnessed the first signs of organized opposition.
In two communities miles apart, strikingly similar processes are beginning to unfold. The prospect of racetracks--and the host of economic, social and moral issues inherently connected to them--is jump-starting grass-roots efforts in both Dumfries and Nokesville to defeat the proposals over the next three months.
The newly formed Citizens for a Better Dumfries announced itself last week as a group opposed to the mile-long steeplechase track that Providence Forge, Va.-based Colonial Downs Inc. wants to place on a private landfill in the small eastern Prince William town. Meanwhile, three weeks after the family of Middleburg real estate developer James J. Wilson abandoned a location north of Haymarket in favor of a Nokesville site for a grass track, opponents in Nokesville are beginning to make their voices heard.
"We formed to help show our elected officials the other side of the picture, so they can see the negative impacts" of gambling, said the Rev. Larry Craddock, pastor of Dumfries United Methodist Church, who helped form Citizens for a Better Dumfries. The group, he said, was formed about three weeks ago and has more than 100 members, many of whom belong to congregations in and around the town.
All of this has occurred as both racing groups are trying to pass long local and state review processes before a five-year window for groups to get a license allowing parimutuel wagering--a window opened by county voters when they passed a referendum item in 1994--closes Nov. 30. As the only jurisdiction in Northern Virginia with such a referendum, Prince William may represent the horse racing industry's last chance to gain a foothold in the area for some time.
Colonial Downs and the Wilson family's Equus Gaming Co. and Virginia Turf Club had until 5 p.m. Wednesday to submit their applications and a $10,000 fee to the Virginia Racing Commission. In keeping with the harried pace that has characterized their efforts until now, both groups did so at the last minute. Commission Secretary Stan Bowker said the down-to-the-wire timing was not surprising.
"That's very usual that people wait till the last minute," Bowker said. "There is a certain amount of competition involved here . . . and I don't think either necessarily wants to tip their hand."
In Dumfries, an incorporated town where the Town Council will decide the future of the racetrack, one of the most common arguments against the Colonial Downs proposal is that gambling would overshadow racing at the track. The company wants to have fewer than 20 days of live racing a year, although its facility will be open for satellite betting every day. "There is a population in Dumfries that is struggling just day to day, and the last thing they need is another parasite on the precious funds that they have," said Prince William Circuit Court Clerk Dave Mabie, who has met with community leaders in Dumfries.
"If they're only going to have 10 days of racing a year, this is not a racetrack," said Judy Anderson, who owns a hair salon in Dumfries and says 90 percent of her customers oppose the track.
The Town Council likely will not vote on the issue until mid-October.
The Wilson family's proposal may face an even tougher road, because the Nokesville site falls under the purview of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. The board members face election this year, and many of them already have voiced opposition to a gambling facility in Prince William.
Moreover, because of the application requirements and other logistical difficulties, the county already has informed the Wilson family that the board will not vote on the issue until after January. The Racing Commission has said it may be able to issue a license by the end of November, contingent upon county approval soon after.
The still-unorganized citizen opposition forming in Nokesville seems to rally around the idea that a track might destroy an older, predominantly rural way of life.
"Nokesville is one of the few remaining communities where family values and civic pride are still relevant terms," said Rich Wallace, who lives across the street from the proposed site. "The consequences [of a racetrack] are obvious to everyone."
Those consequences, according to Wallace and others who agree with him, involve not only possible changes to the town's character but also to traffic on Route 28, which would be the primary access to the site, planned for Fauquier Drive and Reid Lane near the Fauquier County line.
The level of support for or opposition to the Nokesville track is unclear, because the proposal surfaced just three weeks ago. But Liz Cronauer, president of the Nokesville Civic Association, said she has taken about six calls in the past few weeks against the track proposal, and only one in support. Her group has not yet taken a position on the facility, but plans to do so later this month--in part to give the group time to publicize a proposal that many community members don't seem to know about.
Meanwhile, Mary Anne Hanback has launched her own publicity drive. She lives in Fauquier County just a few miles from the proposed site, but she has been contacting Prince William supervisors to protest the Wilson proposal. She says few people in Fauquier know anything about the racetrack idea--but she's convinced that when they do, they'll be none too happy about it.
"I have probably run up a $100 phone bill . . . just to alert the people in Fauquier County," Hanback said.
Staff writer Lisa Rein contributed to this report.