What once looked like a done deal has become quite the community conundrum for sleepy Plymouth Township, Michigan, where the operators of the state’s lone remaining horse racetrack own a large parcel of land to which they’d like to relocate their facility.
The current meet marks Northville Downs’ 79th and final year at its existing facility in Northville Township, which sits a short distance from the proposed new site on Five Mile Road. That project seemed to be sailing toward approval until a vocal group of opponents started showing up at Board of Trustees meetings en masse and circulating an anti-track petition, online and off.
One of Stop the Racetrack’s chief organizers, Dale Bernhardt, said his group has collected contact information and signatures from some 1,500 residents, and at an Aug. 22 Board of Trustees meeting, both Plymouth Township Supervisor Kurt Heise and Treasurer Bob Doroshewitz asked to see the petitions. This request was declined, although Bernhardt acknowledged that his group would consider turning over the petitions if Heise could expedite a FOIA request seeking access to every email he’s written, received, or forwarded concerning Northville Downs.
“A lot of that is attorney-client privilege or privileged under other exemptions. I’ll let my attorneys handle that,” said Heise, who told MI Bets that he’s made some progress of late on planned unit development and community benefit agreements with brothers John and Mike Carlo, who own the track.
“I believe that anyone who signs a petition for or against something expects that, at some point, that information is going to be presented to the government,” explained Heise. “You have a First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. I think after three months, we as a board would like to see the petitions. It comes into our decision-making process and does influence the outcome.
“When those petitions are not presented, you can easily conclude that they’re being collected for a political purpose. The people leading the charge are, for the most part, Libertarians and Republicans, while the people who signed the petition come from a variety of backgrounds. When they signed that petition, I don’t think they expected their names would be put into a database for a political cause they might not agree with. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve been in the political world long enough to know when a database is being created.”
Bernhardt denied that any of this is occurring, telling MI Bets, “We never started this as political and it is still not political. We’ve been accused of being Libertarians and RINO Libertarians and a dark-money machine. That’s not the case at all.
“All we’re trying to do is inform the public — this has a possibility of coming into your community, do you want it or not? And people don’t want it. This was totally grassroots and it really didn’t form until we came out of a meeting in April. The petition was for us to help gauge the opposition size. It will never be used for political purposes.”
‘It’s not like I’m gonna go egg their house’
Doroshewitz has served as Plymouth’s treasurer for the last year and as a trustee for the past 20. He has a dry, charming sense of humor. To wit, on Doroshewitz’s official bio on the township website, he says of himself, “I turned 61 this year, but I know I don’t look a day over 70.”
When Northville Downs’ relocation was first presented to Plymouth’s Planning Commission in January, Doroshewitz recalled, “We had no objection to it and I didn’t really see the opposition coming. I’ve been on the board for 20 years, as a part-time trustee for 19 and the treasurer for the past year, and I really didn’t expect that we’d see that kind of public pushback.”
Because of this opposition, Doroshewitz said he’d probably vote no on the track’s relocation if he were forced to make a decision now. But he’s reserving judgment until he is able to review the track’s proposed community benefit agreement, which “hasn’t been put in front of us yet.”
“I think it’s inappropriate for a member of the board to say, ‘I’m absolutely voting no regardless of what the community benefit agreement says,’” he said. “What if they promised to pay us $100 million a year? Would you feel the same way? The applicant deserves their due process. And until they come to us and say, ‘Here’s what we’re willing to do,’ it’s not right for people to take a firm stance.”
As for the anti-track petitions, Doroshewitz said he thinks they “absolutely” should be presented to the Board of Trustees.
“If you asked me to sign a petition because you wanted to take it to your government, your expectation is that you’re gonna share that with your government,” he said. “Why else would you sign it unless there’s some other purpose? I’m not a paranoid guy, but you’re collecting data on people and not turning it in to the target of the reason you asked for the petition to begin with.
“I’d like to see who’s on them because I know a lot of people in the community. If I see someone I know who I like and respect, it’s not like I’m gonna go egg their house. I might call them and ask them what they think. I haven’t heard one reason that made sense for why they won’t disclose the petitions.”
Photo: Kena Betancur/VIEWpress