The New Orleans City Council on Thursday (June 16) will decide the fate of Churchill Downs' proposal to bring slot machines to the historic Fair Grounds race track. State lawmakers and New Orleans voters already have approved measures allowing up to 700 slots at the track. Churchill Downs, which bought the thoroughbred racing landmark after slots were approved, wants 500 machines now to make the track competitive. Indeed, Churchill officials say the track is a money-loser without slots. The publicly traded company already has poured more than $64 million into the track, and it plans to spend another $20 million on a new slots facility. This issue is not just about money, however. It stirs deep emotions in the adjacent historic neighborhood. While we believe neighbors' concerns should be given great weight, we supported the 2003 slots referendum because we were convinced that a limited number of slots could save the beleaguered Fair Grounds. We still feel that way. Churchill's approach is reasonable and, in our opinion, shows respect for its neighbors. The council therefore should give its approval.
Specifically, Churchill seeks authorization to build a new slots facility which will be integrated into the clubhouse and grandstand complex, but which will house all 500 slot machines in one place. Churchill also needs council approval of the facility's hours of operation. That is the real sticking point.
Churchill initially proposed round-the-clock slots, but the company has since scaled back its request to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Track officials maintain they need slots working that many hours a day just to get in the game, financially speaking. They point to the experiences of other Louisiana tracks to support their argument, and they make a good case. All other Louisiana thoroughbred tracks have had slots for at least two years -- and in numbers far greater than the 500 to 700 sought by Churchill. Evangeline Downs near Lafayette has more than 1,600 slots, while Delta Downs in southwest Louisiana has almost 1,500. Louisiana Downs in Bossier City has more than 1,400 -- and all three offer slots 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Indeed, the Fair Grounds' biggest competition in recent years has been Delta Downs, which shares many racing dates with the Gentilly oval. Slots have fattened Delta's purses to the point where they often dwarf those at the older and supposedly more prestigious (but currently poorer) Fair Grounds. Slots will make the Fair Grounds competitive again, but only if they are allowed to approach their potential.
Critics of the proposal say late hours will harm the historic neighborhoods around the track. We respectfully disagree. Churchill has worked hard to give its neighbors a comfort level that previous track operators never achieved. As a result, track officials have engineered traffic and parking plans that will minimize neighborhood impact, regardless of the hours of operation. All slots patrons will enter and leave via Gentilly Boulevard, a major thoroughfare. The Mystery Street gate, which opens into historic Faubourg St. John, will open only on live racing dates -- and during Jazz Fest. In addition, parking for slots patrons will be restricted to a lot near Gentilly Boulevard, so traffic noise and parking lights will be directed away from residences. Churchill also will add several hundred new parking spaces for slots patrons and reconfigure its valet parking area for live racing and OTB patrons. Most of all, even during peak hours, slots will generate only a fraction of the traffic currently brought by live racing, OTB or Jazz Fest.
Another oft-cited issue is crime. While no one can predict when or where criminals will strike, crime is always a valid concern. Churchill has responded by offering to pay for two dedicated security patrols -- round the clock, seven days a week -- in nearby areas. Officers will be given cell phones so that neighbors can have direct access to them without having to go through NOPD dispatchers. The track's offer is contingent, however, on getting approval of slots 16 hours a day. Negotiations with neighborhood leaders are ongoing, and we would caution neighbors against inflexibility or excessive demands. Churchill is arguably the best owner that the Fair Grounds could hope to have, from the standpoint of operations as well as neighborhood relations. Compared to what other Louisiana tracks already have, Churchill's slots proposal is reasonable.
We have never advocated gambling as a general economic panacea. In fact, the only form of gambling that we have endorsed in the last 15 years has been this one. That's because we see this proposal for what it is: a limited, focused infusion of one type of gambling that has proven it can help sustain a long-standing (and vital) Louisiana industry. The neighborhood and the council should give the Fair Grounds a chance to reclaim its place among the nation's premier thoroughbred racing venues. Slots won't kill the neighborhood, but they could save the track.