Suffolk Downs likely 'grandfathered' at Great Barrington Fairgrounds, but questions remain
GREAT BARRINGTON — In 1998, the former state Racing Commission issued "permanent licenses" to five horse racing tracks.
One of those was for Great Barrington, where horse racing had been held for more than a century at the local fairgrounds.
And while 1998 was the last year racing was held in Great Barrington, the leader of a group from Eastern Massachusetts believes the license issued that year might remain valid, essentially "grandfathering" in the necessary approvals to revive thoroughbred racing at the fairgrounds next year.
As Suffolk Downs ramps up its push to bring racing back to the Berkshires, state and local officials are grappling with questions about what approvals are necessary, as well as whether opponents can force a citizens referendum.
Chip Tuttle, the chief operating officer at Suffolk Downs, met with town officials July 31 to address their questions. He also told The Eagle that the company is preparing for the permitting process, which likely involves two environmental permits and another to run a commercial amusement at the fairgrounds.
The Select Board will discuss the process at its meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at Town Hall.
Suffolk Downs, which held its last race in June, after selling its property in East Boston, has entered an agreement for a long-term lease at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. It plans to invest $15 million to $20 million to refurbish the facilities, and hopes to begin with three to four racing weekends beginning in fall 2020.
A change in state gaming and horse racing laws would be necessary for the company, Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC, to continue wagering and simulcasting in Suffolk County while it runs live racing in Great Barrington. The new bill, currently held in legislative committee, would allow the company to bifurcate its license to operate in two places, and to have a license that would last longer than one year.
The proposed law says a "new local approval shall not be required" for tracks licensed for commercial racing by the Gaming Commission or its predecessor, the state Racing Commission.
Tuttle told The Eagle in an email that state law allows a license to be issued only to tracks that have been "once approved by the selectmen (not a town vote)."
The permanent license issued in 1998 helps bolster the assumption that local board approvals must have been granted back then, he said, noting that this was a factor in Suffolk Downs' decision to pursue racing in Great Barrington.
Despite the granting of the "permanent" commercial gaming license, Massachusetts Gaming Commission spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll said the license still might need to be renewed from year to year.
And she pointed to existing law that says state horse racing licenses are contingent on a majority vote by county residents. This raises new questions, since Berkshire County government was disbanded in 2000.
In addition, the plan likely will need to clear municipal hurdles.
"It is our understanding that you still would need a range of permits from local boards," said state Sen. Adam Hinds D-Pittsfield, co-sponsor of the bill pending in the Legislature.
In a joint letter to Town Manager Mark Pruhenski, Hinds and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said they believe that by not requiring a "new local approval" for the track location, "the intention [of the bill] is to grandfather previous racing locations for potential future licenses."
But public sentiment might present the biggest challenge.
In Great Barrington, there is opposition to horse racing from a number of vocal residents who say the sport is cruel, pointing to the occasional deaths of horses that compete.
Officials say the town ultimately will have its say through permits, which will require public hearings.
But if opposition persists, the bill also contains a two-step mechanism through which local communities can force a citizens referendum. If 12 percent of registered voters sign a petition, the matter would be sent to the Select Board to reconsider. If an agreement cannot be reached, the matter would go to a referendum.
The question of a townwide vote set off a torrent of questions recently at Town Hall, and prompted reassurances about local control from Hinds and Pignatelli, who said there still is plenty of time to weigh in at the Statehouse and possibly alter the legislation.
During the past two weeks, there has been a flurry of activity among local officials trying to get a handle on the issue.
Pruhenski said Tuesday that his office and town attorney David Doneski are digging through records to understand what kind of vote led to this 1998 approval of the state's permanent license. The Eagle was unable to reach Doneski.
And Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon has not concealed his frustration that the issue has landed on the front burner a year before any racing could commence.
"We're premature on discussing this publicly," he said.
Select Board member Leigh Davis, who initiated the discussion about local control during last month's meeting, suggested in an email to The Eagle that all the murkiness in the new legislation is intentional, as is the two-step referendum process.
"It's throwing up roadblocks," she said. "We almost have to fight for our voices to be heard. Why is that? The first stop should be a public referendum."
Select Board Vice Chairman Ed Abrahams said he would welcome voters making such a decision, should it come to that.
"When something is controversial, I'm happy for it to go to the town voters," he said. "However the Select Board votes on this, there are going to be an awful lot of angry people."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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