Colonial Downs, Virginia's only parimutuel horse-racing track, wants to bring an off-track betting parlor to Northern Virginia -- namely to the city of Manassas Park.
Undeterred that voters have rejected off-track betting repeatedly, Colonial Downs will again go to the polls, this time asking voters for permission to install a sports bar-style betting parlor in a shopping center off Route 28, a major commuter highway.
Manassas Park residents will vote on the plan Nov. 2.
The effort is one of five that Colonial Downs owners are orchestrating across the state. Voters in Greene, Scott, Westmoreland and Henry counties will have similar referendums this fall, said company President Ian Stewart. Colonial Downs runs five off-track betting facilities in Virginia -- with a sixth on the way -- as well as a track in New Kent County, near Richmond.
For more than a decade, the state's horse-racing industry has tried unsuccessfully to gain a foothold in Northern Virginia, the state's wealthiest and most populous region.
Without a local outlet, industry officials say bettors in the area take their business to the Internet or across state lines to West Virginia.
The site proposed by Colonial Downs for a betting parlor is in Manassas Park Shopping Center, at a busy intersection less than two miles from both Fairfax and Prince William counties.
The 20,000-square-foot facility, in the middle of what is a mostly working- and middle-class city of 12,400, would include a restaurant and bar with hundreds of video screens displaying horse races from the Colonial Downs track and other tracks across the country. Customers could wager or just watch the races.
A Prince William County Circuit Court judge ruled this week that gambling proponents had collected enough valid signatures on petitions to place the issue on the ballot.
Manassas Park voters can expect phone calls, direct mailings, newspaper advertising and door-to-door visits, said Randy Gilliland, a business consultant hired to help run the campaign, which is underway.
Beth Roland, the city's assistant voter registrar, said she expects high voter turnout.
"There are a lot of people who want [off-track betting] and a lot of people who don't," she said. "Very few people are teetering in between. Between the referendum and presidential election, we're going to be swamped."
Northern Virginia voters in six jurisdictions have rejected proposals to build off-track betting centers since 1992. Eight years ago, Manassas Park voters spurned a similar proposal by 74 votes.
The difference? Colonial Downs has an established, successful record with such centers across the state, company officials said. The company has projected that $90 million would be wagered at the parlor annually, which would provide $558,000 in tax revenue for the city annually.
Meanwhile, opponents are gearing up for a fight. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said he thinks Colonial Downs is "trying to prey" on Manassas Park.
Wolf argued that gambling is anti-family, bringing with it bankruptcy, crime and addiction. It's also anti-business and not something Northern Virginia needs, he said.
Manassas Park elected officials aren't taking a position on the matter, leaving the decision-making to the voters. But other officials have expressed concern over how such a facility would affect their residents.
Fairfax Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), whose district lies within a few miles of the proposed betting parlor, said he would want to see some assurance that Manassas Park has a plan for dealing with possible increases in crime.
Manassas Mayor Douglas S. Waldron (R) said he sees no benefit to his city, which sits next to Manassas Park.
"I know it's been described in the past as an 'attractive nuisance,' " he said. "I personally support Congressman Wolf's view. He has publicly opposed it, and personally I support his views."
A bill was signed into state law this year that allows Colonial Downs to expand the number of centers it's allowed to operate from six to 10.
The horse-racing industry nationwide has struggled in recent years. Racetrack attendance has declined, leaving owners scrambling in some cases to come up with sufficient prize money for winning horses.
Some opponents have said they fear that off-track betting will be a precursor to slots. But Virginia horse-racing industry officials said they're not seeking slots -- they simply want to distribute their product, horse racing, throughout the state.
Penny Cardona, 27, of Manassas Park is part of Colonial Downs's target demographic. She buys a lottery ticket every day and visits Charles Town, W.Va., which has horse racing and slots, as "often as she can."
Cardona dismissed talk about the possibility of increased crime and said she's never seen any in West Virginia.
As for addiction, "that's your problem if you get addicted to it," Cardona said. "It's all in your head."
Although she's not registered to vote, Cardona said she would register just to support this item.