Update-Missoula County Commissioners Vote for an End to Horse Racing at Fairgrounds [AUDIO]
UPDATE - Thursday, May 23, 2013
At the close of Wednesday's County Commissioner's meeting, the three members voted unanimously to end horse racing at the county fairgrounds.
Commissioner Jean Curtiss said on Thursday, May 23, that keeping the racetrack was simply an unsustainable decision.
"When you own, or the public owns, a piece of land that's 42 acres, over half of which is encumbered by a racetrack, it becomes a shadow that's hanging over there," Curtiss said."We're planning for long term development, and as long as there's a racetrack encumbering the property, the community can't be confident in their investment."
Curtiss said the sport of horse racing has been diminishing in popularity over the years, and the lack of race meets in Missoula is just a symptom of that decline.
"In the last 10 years, there have been just seven days of racing on that track," Curtiss said. "So, what kind of investment do we want to make so that we may race a few days every once in awhile?"
Curtiss said the law also stands in the way of further investment in the race track.
"We're actually prohibited from using taxpayer dollars to enhance the race track, because it's gambling," Curtiss said. "We were losing about $20,000 taxpayer dollars a day over the last few years of racing. It was a hard decision. We tried to give it a chance over the last six years, and it was just time to make the decision."
Driving past the fairgrounds, the picture remains the same, for now.
"There's nobody out there with a bulldozer right now tearing down the track," Curtiss said. "If and when there are opportunities for community investment in a more multi-use facility, the track will not be the prohibiting factor to keep us from doing it."
County Commissioner Jean Curtiss
At the Wednesday, May 22 Missoula County Commissioners meeting several area residents spoke in favor of the commissioners' plan to "no longer consider the functionality of the racetrack in any future land use and planning."Fairgrounds manager Steve Earle started the meeting by briefing the commissioners on the five-year plan from the Missoula County Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. Part of the plan is to build a $10 million dollar multi-events center at the fairgrounds, while eliminating the historic racetrack and replacing the current grandstands.
Responses from the crowd included comments from state legislator and attorney Kimberly Dudek, who gave a brief history of the racetrack.
"Horse racing in Missoula County started in 1876, that's actually before Missoula was incorporated as a city," Dudek said. "The current racetrack was constructed in 1914, and was the first structure built on the fairgrounds. I stand on the same track that existed in pictures in 1930 that we have in the application for the National Register of Historic Places."
Dudek also mentioned an important anniversary for the racetrack.
"This racetrack will be 100 years old next year, but instead of having a hundred year anniversary, we're considering demolishing it," Dudek said. "Not only would that keep Missoulians from enjoying the racetrack now as it currently exists, but also take that away from future generations."
Speaking in favor of a proposed multi-events center was Harvey Hergett, President of the Board of Directors for the Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association.
"I'd like to go on record as saying we support the decision not to consider the racetrack into the future, and support the decision for a multi-use events center," Hergett said. "The concept of a multi-use events center is a good concept for the city of Missoula. The reason being that we struggle in this community to have a venue where we can have larger concerts, and sports events like state high school basketball, volleyball and wrestling tournaments."
The idea of a multi-events center is a good one for former State Senator Dale Mahlum, however, having it located at the fairgrounds would be difficult to access.
"People in Missoula know how to get to the fairgrounds," Mahlum said. "But, a lot of the people who will come to an events center will come from places like Washington, Idaho and different places. Getting to the fairgrounds is like getting through a maze, if you haven't been here before."
Mahlum suggested the events center be built on county land just off I-90 not far from the Airport Boulevard exit.
The proposed events center wouldn't be built until 2018, as the culmination of the five year Fairgrounds Advisory Committee plan.
At it's January 28 meeting, the commissioners originally endorsed the concept to no longer consider the functionality of the racetrack.