Last Friday, Brian Turnbull had just finished securing a dinner reservation for 16 people at Northville Downs when he began reminiscing about the racetrack’s gilded age.
“Every night, every [parking] spot was taken,” he said. “It was like going to a Michigan football game. In its heyday, the track would double the population every day in Northville.”
Those days are long gone for Michigan’s last remaining horse track. And after a slate of races on Nov. 25, live harness racing at Northville Downs will cease to exist entirely — at least in the city of Northville, where Turnbull now serves as mayor.
On Monday, with 167 members of the public in attendance, the Northville City Council cleared the way for the site currently occupied by Northville Downs to be demolished and reborn as a mixed-use development featuring some 450 housing units, green space, and commercial properties. The council’s passage marked a significant step in a process that was set in motion in 2018, when the track’s owners, John and Mike Carlo, sold the land on which it sat to Hunter Pasteur Homes.
Despite the council’s ultimate approval, the redevelopment was not without its opponents, some of whom were concerned that it would create more traffic than the racetrack did on a day-to-day basis. Ironically, some opponents of Northville Downs’ proposed relocation to nearby Plymouth Township are concerned that the track will increase traffic on Five Mile Road in that neck of the woods.
‘The Carlos were everything to this town’
One thing’s for certain: The fate of the track’s desired move to Plymouth is very much in doubt at this juncture, with Township Supervisor Kurt Heise telling Hometown Life last month, “I don’t feel like there’s a sense of urgency from Northville Downs, because they’re still fully functional up in the city of Northville and I don’t see any progress being made up there with respect to Northville’s huge condo project. Northville Downs may be in [Northville] for another year, maybe longer.”
But whatever the Carlos’ current level of urgency, Monday’s vote in Northville represents the sort of progress Heise previously found lacking. It also means that if the track is to survive, it will no longer be in its current location, which is where it’s been since 1944.
In turning the page on the current iteration of Northville Downs, Turnbull again waxed nostalgic.
“Racing was big; the Carlos were everything to this town,” the mayor said. “The Carlo family came in after WWII and they were the first ones to put in a lit track. My grandfather, he was an electrician. He put those lights up. The Downs organization has meant a great deal to Northville over the years. They’ve been a partner for the community; they’ve been congenial on using the facility for other activities.”
Whether such activity will continue a few miles down the road in suburban Detroit now hangs in the balance.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images