HAMPTON ROADS, VA — HAMPTON ROADS, Va. -- The Virginia Racing Commission looked at a World War II-era public housing project in downtown Portsmouth and a wheat field near Virginia Beach yesterday and tried to visualize each site as a horse racing mecca.
In each municipality, located about 25 miles apart, the commissioners sat in packed city halls and listened as a seemingly endless parade of promoters, politicians and citizens extolled the economic and social benefits of locating a horse track in their communities.
The builder of each proposed track hopes to lure Maryland horses to his facility during summer thoroughbred and fall harness meets by offering higher purses than Maryland tracks and will operate in direct competition with local tracks.
In Portsmouth, a blue-collar town, 54 people spoke in favor of the track. Six were opposed. Opposition included a Nation of Islam minister who warned that horses could be exposed to nuclear waste being stockpiled in the Portsmouth area and a Southern Baptist pastor representing congregations that he said oppose gambling.
One proponent sang an original song in support of the track and the city.
Portsmouth officials estimate a track would provide $3.5 million in expanded revenue base, create 1,000 new jobs and $15 million in direct spending on salaries, goods and services. The Portsmouth track is proposed by the Virginia Racing Associates, a group of six native Virginians who are equine and civic leaders. The track would be built in partnership with the city government and the Hampton Roads Sports Authority.
To make way for the track, the city plans to tear down 469 homes that were built to house military personnel during World War II. People living there would be relocated.
Later in the day, at Virginia Beach, the commissioners listened as Tom Meeker, president of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., who outlined his plans for building a track with "a Disneyland sort of appeal" in a park-like setting on about 250 acres, now planted in wheat. The proposed track is located about 12 miles from the downtown area of the resort city.
At a public hearing last night, 40 people spoke in support of the proposed Princess Anne Downs track. The lone opponent was a politician running for a city council seat.
Carrie Camp, whose father is a VRA partner, said that the strength of the Portsmouth application is that the group is comprised totally of Virginians, has a strong financing package and a site located in the center of the Hampton Roads area. She said that if Churchill Downs is awarded the license to build in Virginia Beach, "the track will be just a third of an expansion enterprise."
Churchill Downs recently invested in a harness track being built in Anderson, Ind., and is also planning a track for Costa Rica.
Meeker said the strength of the Churchill Downs application is the depth and expertise of his management.
The commissioners -- four men and one woman -- seemed impressed by the presentations.
"I thought both of these proposals today were well thought out," said board member Bob Beck.
"We've got two good options in the Tidewater," said commissioner Arthur Arundel. He said he will base his decision ++ 30 percent each on site visits, public hearings now and the final hearings in June, and 10 percent on other factors.
Each track will hold about 10,000 people, offer stabling for 1,200 horses and cost in the $50 million range.
The site visits continue on Monday when the commissioners look at Laurel/Pimlico's proposed site for a track in Loudoun County, Va., and another northern Virginia site in Prince William County, proposed by Jim Wilson's Virginia Jockey Club. The site visits and public hearings conclude Wednesday when the final two applicants are heard in New Kent County.
The commission holds three days of final fact-finding hearings June 6-8, listens to recommendations from financial advisers and various organizations in the state and then is to award the license within 90 days.