When Colonial Downs Inc. announced plans last summer to build a horse racing track in Dumfries, many elected officials in the tiny town kept an open mind. Even the mayor was ecstatic, endorsing the proposed track as an economic boon for the community.
Four months later, the track is dead, the victim of a local political climate that has turned increasingly hostile to horse racing and its attendant gambling.
In a 4 to 2 vote Tuesday, the six-member Town Council killed the $20 million steeplechase track Colonial Downs wanted to build atop a commercial landfill off Interstate 95, denying the company a special-use permit for the project. One seat on the seven-member council is vacant.
The vote leaves the industry one last hope to bring horse racing to Northern Virginia before a referendum allowing parimutuel betting in Prince William County expires Nov. 30.
A flat turf track proposed by Middleburg businessman James J. Wilson on 220 acres in rural Nokesville near the Fauquier County line goes before the Virginia Racing Commission for a vote Wednesday. The state panel must issue any track license. A Wilson track also would need local approval from the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, which is not expected to vote until early next year.
For many of the same reasons the Dumfries track failed to win support, the Nokesville track's prospects are uncertain.
The Dumfries track would have brought dozens of jobs and as much as $500,000 a year in real estate and other betting taxes to the tiny town of 3,400 in the county's eastern end. It would have replaced an unsightly landfill with a colorful sporting event.
Northern Virginia's local equine industry would have prospered as Colonial Downs, which operates Virginia's only existing racetrack, an ailing operation south of Richmond, would become profitable.
Or so it seemed.
Even as Dumfries Mayor Chris Brown began to woo local officials and constituents, hailing the track as the savior that could pay for a sound barrier along Interstate 95 and clean Quantico Creek, a grass-roots band of Dumfries residents was organizing against it.
The opponents, led by church leaders, attacked the track on economic and moral grounds. They saw gambling as immoral and addictive. And they were appalled that the track's main feature would not be live horse racing, but rather off-track betting, where wagers are placed on races run in other states and beamed onto TV screens inside the grandstand. With attendance at live races dwindling nationwide, simulcasting has become the industry's main source of revenue.
Opponents grew edgy as they learned more about the poor financial health of Colonial Downs's New Kent County, Va., track, which has suffered from poor attendance and disputes with contractors. That track lost $5.3 million last year and is not expected to turn a profit this year.
Dumfries's potential proceeds from a tax on betting revenue also came into question, as Prince William officials asserted that the county, not the town, would get the money, estimated at more than $200,000.
"The [Dumfries] track was bad for the town," said the Rev. Larry Craddock, a Methodist minister and one of the leaders of Citizens for a Better Dumfries. "There were a lot of questions about their ability to go forth and be a viable business in the community."
Dozens of town residents and others who live in Prince William denounced the proposed track at several public hearings.
Brown, who cast one of the two favorable votes Tuesday, said the town missed out on valuable jobs, tax dollars and, most important, a "multiplier effect" that takes place when a business moves in and generates interest from other businesses.
"The financial engine that could have gotten all that done was the track," he said.
As for Colonial Downs, company officials said they will pursue local referendums in other communities across the state that might be more favorable to a racetrack. But Northern Virginia, with its large population and affluence, remains the industry's holy grail.
The problem is that five referendums on parimutuel betting in the region have failed to win approval, and even Prince William, which approved horse racing twice, in 1994 and 1989, now appears to have turned its back on the industry.
"The key phrase is politics," said Herb Jones, director of investor relations for Colonial Downs. "We're not blameless. But all we're trying to do is get our message out that this is a good thing for Virginia and it's good for horsemen.
A sale of the New Kent track, rumored for months, is now being publicly discussed as a possible savior for the business and the horse racing industry.
But many industry observers say the company did not help itself by projecting a sometimes-arrogant image to local officials and legislators in Richmond.
"If they had managed their public relations better, they could be generating sympathy where in many quarters they have not," Racing Commission Chairman Robin Williams said. "The fact that Colonial Downs hasn't been successful does not mean that racing is a failure."