A mere four weeks ago, it appeared as though the relocation of the 79-year-old Northville Downs harness racing track to a new facility in nearby Plymouth Township was at the doorstep of approval. Only one member of the Detroit suburb’s Board of Trustees, Chuck Curmi, had voted against the project, while concerns about traffic on Five Mile Road and additional onsite gambling options seemed relatively muted.
But Curmi, for one, has continued to bang the drum in opposition to the project, which could include youth soccer fields and pickleball courts, among other public amenities. And a mysterious new website, stop-the-racetrack.com, has cropped up, casting the proposed facility as a magnet for unseemly characters and urging residents to sign an online petition to voice their displeasure.
“I don’t know who operates it,” Curmi said of the website, but added that he agrees with many of its points and that residents are “waking up.”
So what took them so long?
“Without a local newspaper, many people don’t know what’s going on,” said Curmi. “Interestingly, it was never bragged about in any local newsletters. I think this is a ruse for a future racino. The Carlo brothers (Northville Downs’ owners) have said they’ve been trying to change the law to get racinos legalized for 25 years and will continue to do that.”
That depends on how one defines “racino.” Traditionally, racinos are thought of as a casino — typically with slot machines, and sometimes with table games as well — on the premises of a horse track. While there are tribal casinos sprinkled throughout Michigan, there are only three commercial casinos, all in downtown Detroit, with both local and state law making it extremely difficult to expand that form of gaming. (Northville Downs is the last horse track in Michigan, not counting seasonal state fair meets with extremely limited dates.)
But historical horse racing machines — parimutuel contraptions that resemble slot machines, but with each spin based on the result of an actual horse race — would be easier to legalize if the Michigan Legislature was receptive, and early plans for the new Northville Downs site did allow for a 54,000-square-foot gaming facility — plans that have since been shelved.
‘This is Mayberry R.F.D.’
While Curmi says he’s “not anti-development,” he is very particular about the sort of developments he’d like to see in Plymouth Township. And it’s clear in talking to him that horse tracks — and even certain retail outlets and grocery stores — aren’t among them, as they tend to yield what Curmi called “low-paying, non-aspirational jobs.”
With the exception of a Home Depot, Curmi said, “We purposely kept big-box stores out of Plymouth Township. The massive crime that goes on in their parking lots and their buildings is something we don’t want. We’re a low-crime place. This is Mayberry R.F.D. There’s not a lot of action here, and this horse track will bring action. It attracts a different clientele who will be driving drunk, in many places.
“The township of Plymouth is where you come to sleep and where you come to work — not to play or drink or eat out or shop. That’s what’s made us the oasis.”
Contradicting Curmi’s classification of Northville Downs’ clientele as unsavory, Northville police officials have testified that the current track accounts for little crime, with a fan base that skews toward retirement age.
As far as traffic is concerned, Plymouth Township Supervisor Kurt Heise said whatever modest increase there is in the number of vehicles along Five Mile Road should be mitigated by $10 million in new state funding to widen the thoroughfare.
Heise, a supporter of the project, is not sure who is behind the anti-racetrack website but suspects it may be politically motivated, as he’s up for reelection next year. He sees this “growing organized citizen opposition” as the work of “libertarian activists” who see the relocated track as “corporate welfare and a giveaway to big business.” He added that claims that the new Northville site — which formerly housed a prison farm — is heavily contaminated are “completely untrue.”
The next opportunity for the full Board of Trustees to discuss Northville Downs’ relocation is at its bi-weekly meeting on July 11.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images