BY JIM WELLS
The horse industry wants to take its Racino message to the public at large this time, and a forum to do just that was conducted Tuesday night at Canterbury Park.
Previous attempts to level the playing field for the Minnesota racing industry have lacked the necessary support in the legislature to allow casino gaming at Canterbury, so this time organizers hope that a grass roots attempt will get the job done.
The state and nation’s economic crises have provided an opportunity for another attempt to secure gaming that will benefit the state and its horse industry by creating much needed purse money for racing and tax revenue for Minnesota.
“We’ve been going about this backwards,” said MQHRA board member Jim Olson, who got the movement started. “We’ve been going to the legislature with lobbyists trying to influence them about saving racing and Canterbury and the interest wasn’t there. We needed a grass roots approach.”
The attempt this time is being financed with commitments from the MQHRA, HBPA and MTA and with support from the state’s standardbred industry, Canterbury Park and Running Aces.
Therein lies one difference the plan’s originators hope will advance their cause: there are two racetracks in the picture this time and that means an additional site to generate Racino revenue for the state.
Four years ago, lobbyists for Canterbury’s Racino plan projected $100 million a year in revenue for the state with only the Shakopee track in the picture. With the addition of Running Aces a year ago near Forest Lake that projection might be even larger, although the state of the economy does create new factors to consider. What can’t be ignored is the state’s need for income.
“Business is down, financing is up and it’s hard to get cheap money,” said Cort Holten, the HBPA lobbyist who gave Tuesday’s group a legislative update. With the state in a bind for revenue, Holton says that revenue from two Racinos has to be attractive.
“What we want are the same machines that are in 17 (Minnesota) casinos now,” he said. “If we’re going to raise people’s taxes and lower their services, how can we ignore the low-hanging fruit that is there for the taking.”
Holton agrees that getting that message out has to be done differently this time. “The standard, ordinary lobbying attempt ran into a brick wall. It has run its course,” he said. “It has to be regular people talking to legislators.”
That was the thrust behind Tuesday’s forum at Canterbury, which also provided attendees with information on how to contact their representatives and senators. The turnout of more than 100 supporters also heard from Mike Garin, Canterbury’s vice president of hospitality, who pinch-hit for the track’s vacationing president/CEO Randy Sampson. John Groen, Canterbury’s advertising and public affairs manager, spoke about the power and process of grass-roots efforts.
Olson said the group has opened its own web site (Mn-racinos.com) and has compiled a list of individuals to be contacted for various purposes in the effort to reach state law-makers.
Olson and others have attended all 13 of the state Town Hall meetings set up by legislators to hear financial needs and complaints from residents around the state. “We were in Moorhead, Duluth, Bemidji, Little Falls, Winona…,” Olson said. “We got up and testified and listened to people and they listened to us about how this can help the state.”
The homepage for the group’s web site offers various bits of information for interested readers.
“Minnesota should be benefiting form the state’s largest untaxed commercial activity – casino gaming,” the site proclaims.
“Before taxes go up and public services are cut, our legislators should consider generating tax revenue from casino games at existing racetracks which are already sanctioned and regulated. Games could be on track in 2009,” the message adds.
Another message points out that “Racinos will strengthen the racing industry and help sustain thousands of jobs. Racinos require no investment from the state for everyone to win.”
If none of that grabs the attention of state lawmakers, perhaps this message will:
“In the 11 states with racetrack casinos in operation in 2007, more than $2.22 billion in tax revenue was generated for state and local governments.”