Colonial Downs launched a new Manassas Park headquarters last week in a gray, one-room trailer. Meanwhile, a band of opponents upped its rhetoric, claiming that the company's proposed off-track betting parlor could sour the city's family-friendly environment, clog roads and not produce nearly the promised revenue
On Nov. 2, Manassas Park voters will decide whether to allow parimutuel wagering. If the proposal passes, Colonial Downs could move forward with its plans for a sports bar-style betting facility for adults. Company officials said they would locate the 20,000-square-foot facility inside Manassas Park Shopping Center, at Route 28 and Manassas Drive.
The parlor would be the first of its kind to tap into affluent and populous Northern Virginia. Colonial Downs officials estimate that about $90 million would be wagered there annually, bringing about $558,000 in revenue to the city each year. But they also warn that the figures are carefully prepared projections, not certainties.
In fact, the highest annual tax revenue collected by any of Colonial Downs's five off-track betting (OTB) locations was $159,666 in Chesapeake in 1997, according to Virginia Racing Commission records.
Opponents of the OTB parlor shared statistics and ideas last week in an effort to defeat the proposal. The group of about 20 people included a homemaker, an information technology specialist and several politicians: Prince William County Supervisors W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) and John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville) and former Manassas Park City Council member William R. Wren. Someone suggested distributing anti-OTB yard signs.
The opponents have expressed many fears. Inadequate parking at Manassas Park Shopping Center could push customers onto residential streets, bothering nearby communities, some said. Others said local roads could not handle the extra cars. They said property values could decline, as could the moral climate and family atmosphere the city has worked to create.
Chris Bridge, Colonial Downs' director of referendum campaigns, attempted to shoot down all their objections. She said that according to city and company staff analysis, there would be adequate parking and the parlor would not exacerbate area traffic.
"Based on [their argument], they would oppose the opening of any business," Bridge said. "These are legitimate businesses authorized by the general assemblies. There have been no negative effects in any of the communities where they operate."
Bob FitzSimmonds of Bristow, chairman of the Prince William-Manassas Family Alliance, a group formed to promote policies that strengthen families, said that Colonial Downs' financial projections are "exorbitant" based on the performance of the company's five OTB parlors in Richmond, Chesapeake, Hampton and Brunswick. A sixth is expected to open this week in Vinton. "I think [the figures] have been hastily put together and they're rosy," he said. "They've never even been close to these numbers."
"They can criticize the methodology," Bridge said. "But the larger point with voters is that these facilities produce revenue for local government services, and that has been shown indisputably since 1997. . . . There are some significant revenues being produced around the state, and local governments are pretty interested in finding revenues these days."
Colonial Downs estimates that the Manassas Park site would draw bettors from a 20-mile radius, which includes Centreville, Herndon and Vienna.
A report presented to the Manassas Park City Council in late September found evidence of "lower than expected revenues" and "negligible economic development impact in the local communities." But it found no increases in demands on social services, planning or traffic.
City Manager David W. Reynal said he and city staff members contacted other jurisdictions and reported exactly what they heard from other officials.
"We gave the governing body the responses that we found," Reynal said. "There was no attempt to edit or provide information for or against the project."
The city's governing body has stayed officially neutral. As private citizens, however, several top Manassas Park officials signed a petition to put the item on the Nov. 2 ballot, and council member Noreen C. Slater petitioned Prince William County Circuit Court to allow Manassas Park to hold the referendum.
Slater gathered dozens of signatures, including those of Mayor F.C. "Frank" Jones, Vice Mayor Kevin P. Brendel, council members Cynthia R. Gardner and Vonna L. "Vonnie" Privett and School Superintendent Thomas DeBolt, among others.
Meanwhile, inside Colonial Downs' new trailer, Slater's son, Jonathan Slater, took phone calls last week on the local campaign hotline: a cell phone.
Jonathan Slater is Colonial Downs' paid local campaign coordinator. His outreach efforts include collecting and distributing plastic and stuffed animals to children at this weekend's Manassas Park Fall Festival, going door-to-door and mailing out fliers and literature.
"A lot of people don't understand or know Colonial Downs," he said. "This has the potential to be their biggest site by virtue of its location here in Northern Virginia. This has the potential to be a regional operation."
And it wouldn't just be a betting operation, he said, but more of an entertainment destination. Betting would be optional. For example, patrons could also watch Redskins games, Slater said.
Slater said there has been a lot of support so far for the parlor, and not necessarily tied to any larger issues at stake.
"For better or worse, the concept is that this shopping center needs to be revitalized," he said.