Beloved venue to close Dec. 31 unless investors, government take action
Fort Erie Race Track wrapped up its 2012 season of live racing on Monday, and it’s a long shot whether the track will open next season.
The Ontario government dealt the track a possibly fatal blow when the province shut down Fort Erie’s slot machines on April 30, and racing officials in June voted to close the track on Dec. 31 unless they can reach a deal with investors to keep the historic facility open.
If the track closes, 240 people who are employed there, and hundreds more whose jobs are tied to racing in Fort Erie, would be out of work.
“It’s a big hit on the economy of a small town,” Fort Erie Mayor Douglas Martin said Monday.
Racing officials said they are talking to investors who are interested in continuing horse racing at the track, which concluded its 115th season on Monday, but no agreement is ready to be announced.
The officials also are awaiting the release of a government report that will spell out what steps, if any, the province is willing to take to ensure racing has a future in Fort Erie and elsewhere in Ontario.
“We’re working as hard as possible to make sure it doesn’t close,” said Jim Thibert, CEO of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, which operates the track, and general manager of the Town of Fort Erie’s Economic Development and Tourism Corp.
The provincial government had established its Slots at Racetracks program in 1998, and the Fort Erie track took in $5.6 million (Can.) annually in slots revenue, Thibert said, out of total track revenue of $30 million.
The Ontario corporation closed the slots as part of its plan to downsize lottery and gambling, following a drop in American visitors to Ontario gaming sites.
The horse racing season at Fort Erie opened as usual in May, but officials have spent the months since trying to come up with a plan for the track that doesn’t include slots revenue.
“We’re going to try to look at a business plan that bridges the gap,” Thibert said.
The Fort Erie Race Track is owned by Nordic Gaming Corp., a subsidiary of El-Ad Canada, which lost money for years on racing at the track. With the venue in danger of closing, the town and other stakeholders in 2009 formed the not-for-profit racing consortium to lease the track from Nordic Gaming.
However, Nordic Gaming now wants to sell the property, and the consortium is in negotiations with overseas investors who would be willing to buy the track and reach a similar leasing arrangement with the not-for-profit organization.
“It’s an important piece of property,” Thibert said. The track uses about 100 acres of the 338-acre parcel.
At the same time, track officials are waiting for a final report from the Racing Industry Transitional Panel on the future of horse racing in Ontario. An interim report released in August recommended against restarting the Slots at Racetracks program but urged the government to make a significant financial investment in the industry.
“We’re just kind of waiting to see what they say and go from there,” said Martin, who noted that about 1,000 people are directly or indirectly employed at the track.
Fort Erie’s mayor is holding out hope that officials can find a deep-pocketed buyer for the property – someone who wants to continue the tradition of live thoroughbred and quarter horse racing there.
To ensure a viable future for the track, the schedule of races may have to be revised and the new owner may need to invest in a hotel or other new facilities that would bring more people to the site, Thibert said.
He said he believes the venerable track has a “50-50” chance to reopen for live racing next May.
Fort Erie Race Track was supposed to host a slate of races today but opted to cancel the last day of the season because of concerns about the effect of Hurricane Sandy. So Monday’s races marked the end of the track’s 115th – and perhaps last – live racing season.