Alan Chartock | I, Publius: Return of horse racing to fairgrounds is a sucker's bet

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GREAT BARRINGTON — There is a new wave of excitement in Great Barrington. Apparently the ponies will be running right next to the Barrington Bagels, the Guido's, the Big Y, the Wards and a host of other businesses.

It appears that for real estate reasons, the horses were forced out of their Boston neighborhood, and the idea is to run them in Great Barrington and televise the event to other places. This would attract a whole host of people who will bet and carouse and increase the town's tourism. Some people will make money.

I have a few problems with the next big thing. First of all, the horses were running when we arrived in Great Barrington around 1970. The south end of town was crowded then. Now it will be one massive, miserable mess.

Recently, there was a question as to whether to hold a balloon festival nearby. The neighbors complained and the town board put a stop to it. The horse races, however, seem to have a much clearer path.

Many people have concern for the horses. Anyone who reads the papers knows that race horses are dying in alarming numbers. We really shouldn't be helping an industry that puts these beautiful animals at such risk.

If for that alone I would say that this town just doesn't need it. However, it really is much more than that. When the present owners bought the fairgrounds, all kinds of wonderful projects were mentioned as possibilities for using the land. What we are moving toward now is not on my preferred list.

There will be those who want this diversion into gambling as part of the Great Barrington experience. I am not among them and would argue that the town has a nice balance of tourists, second-home owners and full-time residents.

There will be Airbnb owners who think that the races will draw more potential renters and guests. That, of course, is shortsighted. It favors the greedy and the economic short term over the town's profile.

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I presume some people think that I am being snotty in this column; that I look down on the horse racing crowd with distrust and draw an unfair picture of horse racing consumers.

Let's take a look at Saratoga. If you think people are having a hard time finding affordable housing in Great Barrington now, just wait for the horse racing. Many Saratogians actually move out of their homes for the summer just to make a pile of money. Think of how that would impact a young couple or an older person on a fixed income trying to find appropriate housing.

It doesn't stop there. Houses will increase in value to the point that not only renting but buying will be seriously affected.

Not that long ago, a guy wanted to set up a restaurant that could charge up to a thousand dollars for a meal. It never happened, but he arrived at his outrageous expectation by adding up the number of millionaires in the region. He incorrectly assumed that millionaires would think nothing of spending a small fortune to eat some sushi.

At the time, I wondered what food could be so good going down as to justify paying that kind of money. I mean, people get to be millionaires by not being idiots.

It is essential that we look at the future profile of Great Barrington. We are already getting a reputation as the cannabis capital of the northeast. You want to get high, go to Great Barrington. You want to bet the horses, same destination.

Hey, I'm going to think twice before I go to Guido's or Big Y if this happens, and I love both places. This is going to represent a big change for the town and if the town wants it, they should have it. But if you don't want it, now is the time to make yourself heard.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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