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Gaming: Still Unanswered: Is It Better or Worse For A Project to Have URA Support?

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Does the Urban Redevelopment Authority really support a horse-racing track in Hays?

 

During a Nov. 15 state Horse Racing Commission hearing, proponents of the proposed thoroughbred gambling facility, brandished a 2004 URA "economic impact analysis" in support of the development.

 

"While this report was done by a staff member, it is not a sanctioned piece of staff work," says current URA Executive Director Jerome Dettore. "It's like someone was moonlighting."

 

Detorre's assessment is not shared by Dave Fawcett, attorney for track developer Charles Betters, or former URA head Mulugetta Birru, who says he sanctioned the report after Fawcett requested it nearly two years ago.

 

During the hearing, Fawcett, who is also a county councilor, presented numbers from the report dated March 30, 2004, that shows the potential economic viability of the track. He said the track will bring in real-estate taxes amounting to about $14 million. The proposed development has raised the hackles of local residents and environmentalists who want the undisturbed green space -- some 635 acres of woodlands -- to remain.

 

Betters has plans to build the horse track, which would be run by the world-renowned Churchill Downs Company, on part of the wooded parcel. He also plans to build commercial and residential properties. City Councilor Bill Peduto not only spoke against the location, but questioned the validity of the URA report.

 

Dettore, who was not with the authority when the report was prepared, says it is not an official URA document. "I think it's misleading" to refer to it otherwise, he adds.

 

Fawcett says he is surprised by Dettore's comments "I was surprised by the comments that Councilman Peduto made at the meeting because I doubt the URA board knows about every economic impact study conducted by the URA staff," he says. "There was nothing sneaky or underhanded done. We asked for the report and we got one. I think those comments are really off."

 

Birru, who now works as director for economic development for Wayne County in Detroit, says he remembers being asked by the attorney to conduct the study, which did not require board approval, and that he gave it to Fawcett when it was complete. However, Birru said the in-house study was a piece of staff work commonly prepared by the authority and gives preliminary, inconclusive projections and was thus never an official URA document.

 

"Although I personally thought it was a great location," Birru says of the Hays track, "the URA never took an official position on the site."

 

Peduto was the only official to address the commission in opposition to the location. He called the city's large wooded area a "jewel" and opposed the strip mining that Betters had also proposed for the site. The infrastructure needed to prepare the site for such a development is immense, and the $20 million projected by the site owners is a "drop in the bucket" to what will be needed, he added.

 

Fawcett labeled Peduto's comments "short-sighted and disingenuous. ... The site has already been partially mined, it's partially subsided, there's a coal fire under the property, there's acid mine drainage into the streams and there are big Duquesne Power lines running through it. This piece of land is far from a jewel.

 

 "This is a chance for the city to get a first-class horse-racing facility that will bring, jobs, money and prestige to both the city and its residents," Fawcett concluded. "If it doesn't go here, it will go somewhere else in the state, probably on a green field outside of the city."

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