Va. voters head for finish line on racetrack debate

August 02, 1994|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Writer

It has been a prolonged and often bitter debate. Should Loudoun County, Va., introduce thoroughbred racing?

Pimlico/Laurel owner Joe De Francis, who wants to build a racetrack there, has stressed the benefits, from tax dollars to education and economic development.

His opposition has questioned the financial rewards, attacked De Francis' business acumen and tried to paint an unsavory picture of what racing would bring to the county.

In a county referendum forced by citizens against the track, Loudoun voters will determine today whether to permit pari-mutuel gambling in the county. It is the only issue on the ballot.

If De Francis' foes prevail, his vision of a Maryland-Virginia circuit -- with 102 summer racing days in Virginia -- could be doomed.

A month ago, the Loudoun Citizens For Responsible Government and other anti-racing groups appeared to be in command, but a vigorous push by De Francis may have narrowed the gap.

"We have launched about as late a rally as you could launch," said Glenn Petty, a De Francis link to the Virginia horsemen who has acted as a jack-of-all-trades in the campaign. "The question is, is the finish line too close?"

De Francis heads a group called the Old Dominion Jockey Club, which is attempting to operate at Patriot Park, near Dulles Airport, starting in 1996.

Five other groups, with proposed sites in different parts of the state, are vying for the first pari-mutuel license from the Virginia Racing Commission. The commission will decide which bid to accept by Sept. 20.

But a victory in the referendum is crucial to De Francis, whose only other Virginia racing option is to manage his proposed interstate cooperative for Arnold Stansley, an Ohio harness operator who is bidding to locate the track in New Kent County, south of Loudoun.

De Francis tried to block the referendum in Loudoun County, but was unsuccessful in court. Loudoun voters approved pari-mutuel gambling in a 1990 referendum, but community interests forced the issue to another vote by collecting 2,417 signatures on a petition.

De Francis said he has based his last-minute push on three elements.

"One, our thrust has been the direct tax benefit this will bring, particularly to fund education in the county," he said. "Two, it will create a huge number of jobs, over 3,600, and, three, a track will be a tremendous economic shot in the arm for the entire county."

But opponents say high-tech business in the county achieves those ends better than a racetrack would.

"One of the factors is maintaining the quality of life, and we don't feel a track will do that," said Steve Whitener, one of four members of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors who opposed the zoning change that would allow Patriot Park to be built.

"We believe the financial ramifications would bring a net drainage on our county, social costs would go up and families would suffer. We feel it's a bad deal."

Janet Castrovinci, who heads the citizens' group against the racetrack, has lambasted what she labeled De Francis' "shaky tactics." "I just feel he's not a good businessman," she said. "If can't make Laurel and Pimlico go, why should we think he can do it here?

"This is a failing industry. If I was a businessman looking to invest in something, I'd walk away from racing."

Said Petty: "They are just a small group of people with personal and religious agendas. They are trying to get their neighbors to vote no with a fear campaign."

De Francis' response has included door-to-door canvassing, radio and newspaper advertising, speeches to service organizations and telephone contact with voters.

As a result, De Francis said, "It's going to be very, very close. It is critically important that every one of our people vote. I think a large turnout will favor us."

His opponents disagree. Whitener said a rush to the polls would mean that "people are feeling threatened and are going to respond by voting against it."

Some have tried to paint the election as a showdown between the more populous eastern portion of the county and the agrarian western end, where the Virginia horse industry and farms predominate.

There is disagreement on that point as well.

"I would love to say that it's not an east-west thing," Castrovinci said. "But I think people in the west want racing. They just don't want it in their community."

Said De Francis: "Opponents try to portray it as east vs. west. I don't see it as that, because there are benefits for everybody."

Even if the anti-track faction prevails, Petty said, "there will still be legal maneuvering. This story is not dead on Aug. 3."

De Francis said the possibilities include "the [Virginia] racing commission reopening" the path for his bid and the project with Stansley in New Kent County.

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