Some in Great Barrington champing at bit for input on Fairgrounds horse racing bill

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GREAT BARRINGTON — As lawmakers push ahead with a bill that would allow horse racing to resume at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds, some residents want to ensure that they have a say in the matter.

Whether that is even possible remains unclear.

During a contentious meeting of the Select Board on Monday night, residents, and one board member, bemoaned the legislative process that they say has kept them in the dark.

And tempers ran high when Selectwoman Leigh Davis suggested that the board ask a legislative committee to hold the bill until the town can understand fully the implications of the legislation, and to ensure that there is the option of a resident vote. Her motion failed to get a second.

Instead, Select Board member Kate Burke made a motion, which passed 3-2, to ask lawmakers to ensure that the bill allows for a public referendum.

But an official with the racing organization says the town already signed off — 50 years ago — on horse racing in the community.

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse is aiming to relocate the live racing operation it previously had at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, which closed last month, to the Fairgrounds off South Main Street, where thoroughbred racing was held for decades beginning in the mid-19th century. Racing ended there in 1983, until a brief revival in the 1990s.

The company has signed a long-term lease with the Fairgrounds, a nonprofit, and is working on a plan to renovate and expand the track, grandstands and larger property at an estimated cost of $15 million to $20 million. It plans to start in fall 2020, with about three to four weekends of live racing, though eventually that could stretch to a maximum of 40 days.

The company plans to keep its wagering and simulcasting business in Suffolk County, but the bill moving through the Legislature would allow it to hold simulcasting at the Fairgrounds, since it is tied to the racing license.

Some residents want that bill also to require a public referendum in Great Barrington, where the plan has stirred up controversy. While supporters say restoring racing here would turn the Fairgrounds into a property tax and revenue generator for the town and surrounding businesses, others say the sport is cruel and point to the rate of horse deaths at tracks around the country.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the legislation is in the early stages and still can be adjusted, and that it is always open to input by residents and town officials.

As for residents taking a vote, he said that's important, too.

"A [public] referendum is a critical part of the process," he said in an email to The Eagle.

'No need'

Chip Tuttle, chief financial officer for Suffolk Downs, said a public referendum is not required, based on the previous local approvals of racing at the site.

"We're making no attempts to skirt the municipal process, but if a municipal process has already taken place, [there's] no need," Tuttle told The Eagle on Tuesday. He noted that approval was a key reason the company chose the Great Barrington location.

Davis said she wants to see a public referendum rather than leaving the decision with the five-member board. The track would require three special permits — two environmental and one for the business.

She said she has studied the minutiae of the legislation, and was alarmed to discover the bill is unclear about whether a referendum could be held. She has asked that town attorneys scrutinize the bill's language.

She also said she found out that, on July 1, a public hearing for the bill was held in the Legislature, and that no one seemed to know about it. Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon and Vice Chairman Ed Abrahams said they had heard about a hearing but weren't sure when it would be held.

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When Davis pushed Monday for a pause in the legislative process, some other board members seemed to bristle at her scrutiny of the bill.

Abrahams said he wasn't sure what fallout might ensue by asking lawmakers to hold the bill.

Davis said she is not against horse racing, or the company relocating here. She simply wants transparency, and for residents to understand the full implications of the legislation, she said.

"Why did we wait since January?" she asked, referring to the month the legislation was drafted.

"It seems like you're more worried about the town not getting this racecourse," she said, addressing Bannon and Abrahams.

Several residents lined up at the microphone Monday to voice outrage that some on board appeared to thwart scrutiny of the legislation.

"People are telling you they want a pause [for the bill] and you are fighting them," said Steve Farina.

"We need to have a little more reverence for the input of the public," said resident Nan Wile.

"Look what the marijuana shops have had to go through, and that went through a town referendum," said Diego Gutierrez. "We're talking about a major industry and a major economic impact on the town. [It's] inviting the wolf into the chicken house."

Long way to go

Hinds said there is plenty of time to tweak the legislation, that the session ends July 31, 2020, and that testimony can be submitted at any time by board members and residents until it hits the governor's desk.

"I want to work with the town to ensure that their wishes are [considered]," Hinds said. "If that means amending the bill ... that's what I'm here for."

Tuttle said he would be in town the first week of August to meet with board members.

He also said he wanted to make it clear that the company is not looking at year-round operations in town, like wagering, which would be limited to racing days at the Fairgrounds.

"It makes no sense economically, and the town has made it clear they're not interested," he said.

Tuttle also said the company has no intention of opening a training center that would involve long-term stabling of horses, but if that changes, the company would ask the community.

Hinds reiterated that he would make sure that residents have a say.

"Town residents have to be closely involved in this, especially at this stage of the game," he said. "I will certainly make sure that remains the case moving forward."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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