Prince William's state legislators launched a bipartisan attack yesterday on two racetracks proposed for the county, denouncing them as gambling parlors masquerading as legitimate businesses.
The five Republicans and one Democrat announced their opposition to any license the Virginia Racing Commission might grant either operator hoping to establish horse racing in the county before local officials have a chance to weigh in on the plans.
But it was clear that local approval notwithstanding, legislators are balking at the prospect of horse racing on economic and moral grounds. "Gambling is a cannibal form of economic development," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-District 13). "People really resent being fooled like this."
The legislators, who have no formal say on the tracks, nonetheless said they have received numerous calls and letters from county residents who don't want to see racetracks in Prince William.
They seized on the proposals' most controversial feature--simulcast betting--to accuse the applicants of misleading the voters when they approved, in a referendum, a proposal on parimutuel wagering five years ago. "Now, gambling is the big part and helping the horse breeders is the small part," said Del. Michele B. McQuigg (R-District 51). "This is just totally different from what the people voted on."
Meanwhile, the Middleburg family proposing to build a track on 220 acres in Nokesville said it began mounting a door-to-door public relations campaign last weekend to build support.
"They understand we'll be supporting the horse industry, which is agricultural," said Brian Wilson, whose family company, Virginia Turf Club, has proposed the track. "There will be tens of thousands of people indirectly affected by this industry, which will give a huge boost to the local economy."
Wilson said company representatives knocked on doors of about a dozen homes near the site--and plan several "firehouse meetings" to tell county residents that the tracks will create jobs, not moral decay.
The five-member Racing Commission has scheduled separate public hearings next Wednesday on the Nokesville track and one proposed by Colonial Downs Inc. on an 84-acre landfill in Dumfries. Both proposals, made public in July, have jump-started opposition grass-roots groups. State legislators had not weighed in on the plans until now.
Among the politicians' chief complaints is that the Racing Commission could grant either operator a license before the Board of County Supervisors--which must vote on the Nokesville track--or the Town of Dumfries--which has final say over the Colonial Downs plan--take up the proposals.
If the commission waits until local approval is granted, the racetracks would effectively be dead, because the panel must act by Nov. 30, when the five-year referendum allowing parimutuel betting in the county expires.
Prince William officials said they won't consider the plan until at least January, and it's unclear whether the Dumfries Town Council will vote by Nov. 30.
The legislators did not seem concerned.
"When you're only going to be racing a day or two during the week [with the majority of the business devoted to simulcast betting], it's an infringement on the rights of the citizens of Virginia," said Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-District 50).
Racing Commission Chairwoman Robin Williams said the panel "will give the delegation's position great respect."
But she said the applicants must clear numerous hurdles before the commission votes. She said the commission has asked its attorneys to decide whether licenses can be granted without local approval.