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Cautious Optimism Parts Clouds As Northville Downs Relocation Plods On

Legislative reality mutes key criticism while negotiations progress




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For a while there, it looked like the effort to relocate Northville Downs was headed for the glue factory.

Opposition to Michigan’s last horse racetrack was vocal and well-organized, the track’s owners were frustratingly tight-lipped, and elected officials in Plymouth Township — the proposed site of the relocated facility — seemed to be getting worn down by the whole debacle.

But there was recently a tinge of optimism in the voice of Plymouth Township Chairman Kurt Heise, the politician who’s been most intimately involved in the discussions to move the historic harness track a few miles down the road.

“We have been making progress with the Carlo brothers,” Heise said last week in reference to the track’s sibling owners, John and Mike. “The PUD, we’ve pretty much accomplished the goals of the agreement. There’s some administrative and housekeeping stuff that needs to be done between their engineer and our planner. As far as the community benefits agreement, we’re making progress.”

Significant opposition still exists, with Plymouth residents dutifully showing up at Board of Trustees meetings to reiterate why the track would be a net negative for the sleepy suburban community. But Heise said critics have shifted their focus away from rumors that the track would double as a casino, with current legislative efforts making it clear that there are no plans for such an augmentation to occur.

Alternatives to HHR proposed

Whether a casino could legally grace the grounds of Northville Downs depends on your definition of “casino.”

Outside of tribal-operated properties, commercial casinos in Michigan are currently limited to existing facilities in downtown Detroit. Any expansion would be incredibly difficult, if not next to impossible, from a political and legislative perspective.

But historical horse racing machines have offered the sport a lucrative end-around in states like Arkansas and Kentucky, where they’ve propped up the industry. While HHR machines resemble slots, they are based on the results of horse races that have already been run and pay out prizes from a parimutuel pool. If that’s what Northville Downs’ critics mean by “casino,” then yes, that could conceivably happen one day.

That day isn’t coming anytime soon, however. State Sen. Dan Lauwers’ chief of staff, Jill Larder, told MI Bets that it’s now clear that any bills seeking the authorization of HHR machines in Michigan will not fly under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and there is no current legislation along these lines after past years’ efforts have failed.

Instead, Lauwers is co-sponsoring a package of four proposals, Senate Bills 411-414, that would lower the tax on simulcast wagers while lifting the cap on the amount of money the state’s Agriculture Equine Industry Development Fund can receive annually from its 5% cut of online casino and sports betting revenue.

Currently, the AEIDF is limited to utilizing $3 million per year from this allocation. If there was no cap, said Larder, some $8 million per year could flow into the fund’s coffers.

Larder said that Lauwers and his colleagues “feel pretty good” about the package’s prospects for success. Despite formidable opposition from casino interests, the legislation appears to have the votes it needs to clear the Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Agriculture, she added.

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