Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Racetrack Campaign Brings Out Big Gun

Racetrack Campaign Brings Out Big Gun
Parts Tycoon Frank Stronach Lobbies in Dixon for Project.
By Andy Furillo - Bee Capitol Bureau

Auto parts and horse racing magnate Frank Stronach stopped in Dixon on Monday to tout his proposed new racetrack to a gathering of friendly volunteers, and he plans on making another stop in Los Angeles today to bring up the topic in a breakfast meeting with an audience of one: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Stronach promised international celebrity to Dixon if the town goes along with plans promulgated by his Magna Entertainment Corp. to build a state-of-the-art equine oval northeast of downtown on Pedrick Road.

"We could showcase Dixon all over the world," Stronach told the throng of friendlies at Bud's Pub and Grill.

Today, Stronach said in an interview, he'll be dropping in on the California governor -- a fellow native of Austria -- to talk about assorted undisclosed topics. One of them, in all likelihood, will be Dixon Downs.

"I might bring it up," the Toronto-based Stronach said with a smile, after saying that his conversation with Schwarzenegger would mostly focus on Austria and schnitzels.

Asked to characterize his relationship with Schwarzenegger, Stronach said, "We speak the same slang."

"I have great respect for him," Stronach said of the governor. "He wants to do the right thing."

Stronach's appearance in Dixon was his first in town since about 1,800 city residents last month petitioned a City Council action last October that approved the location of his track northeast of downtown. The matter is now set for a public vote April 17.

In his half-hour talk at Bud's, Stronach downplayed opponents' fears that the track would generate waves of crime and traffic.

As for crime, Stronach said the track would be responsible for "none." "We want families, we want (to be) small-town oriented," Stronach said.

As for traffic, he said it won't be "that bad" because he anticipates patrons coming and going throughout a day's racing card, not arriving at and leaving the track en masse as they might at a football game.

"It's very staggered," Stronach said of traffic patterns at racetracks.

Opponents did not agree with his assessment.

"The project really is not a good fit for Dixon, and the people of Dixon don't want it," said Gail Preston of the group called Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth. "That's what it boils down to. Traffic engineers have studied the project and they came up with gridlock, and we think it will be worse than what their study said. And we think it's going to have a destructive effect on families and young people."

Preston said he is impressed with Stronach's personal story, about a young man who emigrated from Austria with less than $200 in his pocket to build a multibillion-dollar worldwide conglomerate that now employs more than 85,000 people.

"I'm not surprised he felt he could do himself some good by coming down here," Preston said. "I have the utmost respect for him in that way. But he is not going to be doing auto parts here, which we would welcome. He's bringing in a horse racetrack, and people don't want it.

"Most of the people here did not move here in hopes of having a racetrack. We're fighting to defend this little town."

Stronach's corporation owns Santa Anita Race Track in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia, as well as Golden Gate Fields on the shore of San Francisco Bay in Albany. It also operates major horse racing facilities in Texas and Florida, as well as Pimlico, outside Baltimore, the site of the Preakness Stakes.

Magna has spent the better part of a decade trying to push the 260-acre track toward approval in Dixon, and it is now positioned for an up-or-down vote on the facility in the forms of Measures M, N, O and P.

The company has retained a prominent Democratic Party-linked campaign operative, Erin Lehane, to run the "Yes" campaign.

She is the sister of Chris Lehane, a consultant who has worked for former President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Lehane herself has run Indian gambling campaigns on the East Coast and, more recently, in California, where she helped a Colusa tribe stop a rival band from locating another casino on its turf in the upper Sacramento Valley.

Lehane declined to be interviewed Monday.

Donnie Huffman, the spokesman for the track proponents' campaign committee, Don't Let Dixon Down, said he anticipates that "it's going to take some dough" to get out his side's message and that "I'm sure the budget is going to be high."

"We're going to tell the citizens of Dixon the facts, and the facts are this is a good project for Dixon," Huffman said.

Magna's Los Angeles Turf Club and the affiliated Pacific Racing Association had $178,000 on hand at the beginning of the year, according to the California Secretary of State's Office.

Stronach said he plans to make at least one more appearance in the region before votes are cast.

"We've tried to state our case," he said. "I believe the people here are smart enough to come to their own conclusions."

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