Thursday, March 01, 2007

Racetrack Firm Aims to Sweeten Deal

Racetrack Firm Aims to Sweeten Deal
But Dixon Foes Reject Proposed Amendments to $250 Million Plan.
By Erika Chavez - Bee Staff Writer

In a bid to win over opponents and allay Dixon residents' fears, officials behind a proposed $250 million racetrack are proposing several changes to their plans.
The contentious project was approved by the City Council last fall, but concerned residents gathered enough signatures to force an April 17 referendum on the matter.

Dennis Mills, vice chairman of the Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp., has been living out of a small Dixon hotel for the past eight weeks and talking to as many residents as possible, he said.

It's a good-faith effort to right some wrongs, he said.

From door-to-door visits to coffee shop chats, Mills said he has been speaking to people "in a constructive way about areas in the project where they feel Magna made terrible mistakes."

The result of those talks are proposed "development covenants," which would amend the original racetrack plan approved by the Dixon City Council in October. But residents will be voting on the original proposal when they go to the polls in April.

The covenants would address:

• Slot machines -- The new development agreement would stipulate that there will never be slots or casino-style gambling at the site, even if ownership changes hands or state laws change to allow slot machines outside of Indian casinos.

• Traffic and noise impact -- Magna originally received approval for up to 25 "tier 2 events," which would draw 6,800 to 15,000 people, and one "tier 3" event, which would draw as many as 50,000 spectators. Under the proposed covenant, Magna would eliminate the larger tier 3 event as well as 15 non-racing tier 2 events, such as concerts. They also are willing to reduce tier 2 events to 10,000 people.

• Concerns at Campbell Soup -- The company, which has a plant near the proposed racetrack site, has legally challenged the project, saying the effect on its business has not been adequately studied. Magna has offered not to hold any racing events during canning season, July 1 through Sept. 30, so as not to interfere with Campbell's business operations.

• Local business concerns -- Some residents have expressed fear that the racetrack project, which will include a hotel, conference center and retail space, will affect local businesses. Magna said it will provide free advertising for Dixon businesses, sponsor an annual stakes race benefiting the Dixon Chamber of Commerce, and give existing local businesses priority spaces in future racetrack development.

The company also has established the Dixon Downs Charitable Foundation and plans to designate 10,000 square feet near the track for use by local social service agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Racetrack project supporters praised the proposed concessions, saying the Canadian conglomerate went above and beyond in its efforts. "I think they really care about this town and listened to what people had to say," said Jill Orr, a lifelong resident and Realtor who serves as vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. "I think Dixon has been given an incredible gift, and we should not turn our backs on it."

Racetrack opponents say these last-minute changes will only confuse voters.

Gail Preston, who helped push a referendum as a member of Dixon Citizens For Quality Growth, said the new "development covenants" won't change the fact that a racetrack is a bad fit for the rural town of 17,000.

"This project isn't good for Dixon. It's bad for Dixon, and any tweaks they make won't change that," Preston said.

Despite Magna's pledge to make slots forever verboten at Dixon Downs, Preston and his fellow opponents remain skeptical.

"Their promise not to ever have gambling there is simply not credible when you consider the industry and the company that it's coming from," he said.

Mills said that while the company operates slot machines at other racetracks, it won't happen in California.

"The compacts that the Indians have with the state are supreme," he said. And even if state laws were to change, "it will be embedded in the deed: there will never be slots on this property."

Preston faulted Magna for the late changes, saying they could have been made much sooner.

"It should have happened much earlier," Mills said. "There was not enough sensitivity on our part" when it came to certain aspects of the plan.

Mills also said Magna failed early on to correctly gauge the depth of community opposition.

"We're in 25 countries and 285 municipalities, and this is the first-ever referendum we're facing," he said. "We're trying very hard to rebuild the trust in this community with those that don't trust us."

Preston said he doesn't expect new "pie-in-the-sky" promises from Magna to change the election's outcome. "We think the people will reject the track, whether it's the big project or the new, slightly reduced project."

Officials with the Campbell Soup Co. had not yet seen the proposed changes, Mills said. Magna officials hope to discuss the pending lawsuit with them soon.

The city of Davis also filed suit against Dixon for approving the project, saying Interstate 80 would be choked by gridlock. Magna officials said the proposed reduction of large-scale events should mitigate many concerns over traffic.

About the writer:

The Bee's Erika Chavez can be reached at (916) 321-1016 or

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