Wednesday, May 13, 2009

And they're off and running ... at Carolina Downs?

There's no good news quite like unexpected good news.

Triangle Business Journal, a publication covering the business community of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill in North Carolina, reported Tuesday afternoon that the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center has recommended the state consider legalizing parimutuel wagering to grow the Tar Heel horse industry. The Rural Development Center, founded in 1987, has a 50-member board of directors. It is a private, nonprofit agency with a stated goal of developing, promoting and implementing "sound economic strategies to improve the quality of life of rural North Carolinians."

A seven-member Equine Study Executive Committee -- including Tom Hendrickson, past-president of the North Carolina Thoroughbred Association, and Bob Sanford, past-president of the North Carolina Horse Council -- made a series of sweeping recommendations. It was a late night at the office and I haven't digested the full 24-page report yet, but the key propositions include:

1. Create an Equine Industry Commission.
2. Conduct a feasibility and site selection study for a "mega horse park."
3. Invest in existing facilities.
4. Consider the reinstitution of parimutuel wagering.
5. Allocate more funding for equine health research.
6. Bolster marketing efforts.
7. Preserve land and open space.
8. Revise tax laws and regulations to ensure that horse farms may be taxed as agricultural property.

That might not quite be akin to punching the "all" button in the last leg of a Pick 6, but it's a pretty good wish-list of policy changes for the state I call home.

North Carolina muzzled the horse racing industry about 100 years ago when it outlawed betting on the races. Now, racing in the state is generally limited to steeplechasing -- though some of the events are spectacular, such as the annual Queen's Cup, in Mineral Springs, near Charlotte, which is staged to benefit a list of charities including the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Rural North Carolina has been hit hard by the decline of the tobacco and textile industries. In Vance County, where I live, the unemployment rate has reached nearly 15 percent, and not just during the current recession, but at times earlier in this decade, as well.

The study makes what I would hope is a compelling case for the horse business -- including racing, thankfully by name -- as a means of reviving rural communities and preserving farmlands that could fall victim to urban sprawl and development.

The Rural Center's research determined that, though the number of horse farms are declining (a trend the group seeks to reverse) the total economic impact of the horse business on North Carolina is $1.9 billion per year. The state has 2.1 million acres of equine operations that pay a total local, state and federal tax bill of $196 million. The 306,210 horses now in the state already form the equine nucleus of an industry that supports 19,183 jobs.

But the three most important figures, in my mind, are these: North Carolina horse farms spend about $1.4 billion per year on goods and services. About 72 percent of that money is spent within the farm's own county, and 90 percent stays in North Carolina.

That is homegrown business.

Living here since 1998, I have long harbored what I figured was a pipe dream; that North Carolina would become open to the racing industry. There are plenty of opponents to gambling in North Carolina, a state that didn't have a lottery until 2005, and only then because proponents in the General Assembly raced to conduct a vote and pass the measure while two opponents — whose votes would have tipped the scales to "nay" -- were unable to be in Raleigh. (The final vote was 24-24, allowing then Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue cast a tiebreaking vote. Perdue is now the governor.)

But now that we have a lottery -- that is, a tax on people who are bad at math -- why not let some of the rest of us play the ponies? The lottery has grossly underperformed, but maybe with a track or three and several strategically placed OTBs, we can help pick up the revenue slack.

I've often thought that the Tri-County area (what we call the region our newspaper covers, Granville, Vance and Warren counties from west to east) would be a suitable location for a racetrack. These counties have plenty of open, affordable land, are within reasonable driving range of a major population center in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle, and offer convenient access to Interstates 85 and 95, the key north-south travel corridor for thoroughbreds as they're shipped seasonally and occasionally up and down the eastern seaboard, from Calder Race Course in Miami all the way to Suffolk Downs in Boston.

Plus, our local economy is already quite tourist- and service-business-driven. We're well-prepared to provide hospitality staff and other workers for a racetrack, with considerable lodging and restaurant choices, plus off-track recreation at expansive and beautiful John H. Kerr Reservoir.

Of course, having tracks (and statebred programs) in North Carolina would let me keep horses where I live, instead of in another state, Virginia in my case, where (though it isn't all that far) I rarely get to see them.

It's late and I'm rambling now, but I'm excited about the prospects that at least somebody besides me thinks horse racing might be a good industry to introduce for North Carolina. And actually, those "somebodies" include names that are attached to good reputations, like committee members Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, and Warwick Arden, dean of the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Right now, in the middle of a recession, would be a terrible time to be opening the gates on a new racetrack anywhere.

But it might be the ideal time to sound the "call to post" for a race business that could be off and running by the time the economy rebounds and Americans are again spending freely with their entertainment dollars.

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