Ebro Greyhound Park proves flexibility is key to survival



Blink your eyes and you might drive right by it. The tiny town of Ebro, nestled in the extreme southwestern corner of Washington County, is a little more than three square miles and home to 241 people. Yet, despite that, on most days you can find cars lined up outside the Ebro Greyhound Park and Poker Room, a pari-mutuel facility that continues to beat the odds, where card games and racing dogs help fuel one of the region’s larger employers.

Evolution of Ebro Poker helps keep the dogs running at a Northwest Florida tradition By Linda Kleindienst Originally published in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

 

Blink your eyes and you might drive right by it. The tiny town of Ebro, nestled in the extreme southwestern corner of Washington County, is a little more than three square miles and home to 241 people. Yet, despite that, on most days you can find cars lined up outside the Ebro Greyhound Park and Poker Room, a pari-mutuel facility that continues to beat the odds, where card games and racing dogs help fuel one of the region’s larger employers.

The dog track, which suddenly looms out of the ground in the middle of what seems like nowhere, can easily surprise someone who doesn’t expect it to be there. But then, it was never supposed to be built in rural Washington County in the first place.

Ebro was originally proposed for Bay County, close to the tourist traffic that’s drawn each summer to Northwest Florida’s beaches. When Bay County voters refused to have any part of it, however, Washington County voters agreed to give it the go-ahead. It was built as close as possible to the Bay County line — and sits only a 15-minute drive from Panama City. During the peak of the tourist season, like during the July 4th holiday, more than 2,000 come to the track each day.

Over the years, Ebro has survived recessions, hurricanes, a dwindling interest in betting on dogs and horses, competition from out-of-state tracks, Internet gambling and Indian casinos.

“We’ve had our ups and downs here,” admits Stockton “Stocky” Hess, 68, the president and general manager. But the track has managed to stay in business, mainly because of the new clientele and extra dollars brought in by state-sanctioned poker games, which started out with limited hours and small pots but has now expanded to allow for unlimited betting and far longer hours.

Employing about 225 workers during its summer racing season, Ebro is one of the largest employers in the area, providing an economic engine for the community.

“This is a significant business for Washington County,” says Ted Everett, executive director of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s been an anchor tenant for the city of Ebro for many years. It’s good for our county, but it’s also good for Bay County, because several of their workers live there.”

Only recently, for the first time in its history, Ebro grabbed the headlines when it became the scene of a horrific tragedy — the discovery of two dozen dead greyhounds at a kennel rented by a local trainer. Tragic in more ways than one — since Ebro has developed a reputation for working with local dog rescue groups to give greyhounds that no longer race a chance to find a home.

“All of us at Ebro Greyhound Park are stunned and devastated at this terrible turn of events. We are deeply saddened that many greyhounds died under Ron Williams’ watch, and we vow … such a thing will never happen again on our property,” says Mark Hess, assistant general manager, marketing manager and Stockton Hess’s son. “We’ve never had a policy in place for off-season kennel checks. However, it is obvious that we need to revise our policies to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

In the beginningi10-ebrobar

The Hess family has owned and operated Ebro since 1967. But the track was founded in 1955 by Greek immigrant Tom Trulis, a Miami businessman who arrived in this country by jumping ship in New York Harbor when he was 12 years old.

Trulis started his career in Rhode Island and worked at a horse track, where he eventually wound up owning the concessions, according to Stockton Hess. “Later, he owned a hotel and restaurant on Miami Beach and thought greyhound racing would do well in the Panhandle. He owned (Ebro) and ran it for 12 years.”

When Trulis decided to sell, Luther Hess, a pioneer of greyhound racing who began his career in the late 1920s, put together a group of fellow Tampa track owners to purchase Ebro. Luther Hess, who was inducted into the greyhound racing Hall of Fame in 1985, was Stockton’s father. The Hess family has been running the show now for the past 44 years.

Among the early changes: tearing down the old track and replacing it with a more modern structure in 1975.

“It had 1950s written all over,” says Mark Hess, 44, alluding to the old track’s wooden seats and a tin roof with holes. If it was raining, “you had to have an umbrella.”

A restaurant was later added and then, after the expansion of gaming was approved by the Florida Legislature, a Las Vegas-style poker room.

Golden years lose their luster

Greyhound racing boomed after World War II. Tracks that had shuttered their doors and turned off their bright lights during the war years — for fear of an enemy attack — were back in business. But then the limitations began. There were no Sunday races. Minors weren’t allowed at the races. Tracks were limited on the number of days they could race.

Then, in 1986, Florida voters approved a state lottery, which pari-mutuel owners say put a stake in the heart of their business. Soon Indian tribes entered the gaming business and bettors were quickly finding ways to gamble via the Internet or on “cruises to nowhere,” ships that would sail out of state waters to let passengers legally gamble away their afternoons and evenings.

In 1992, gambling was legalized in Gulfport, Miss. Then Biloxi became another gambling Mecca two years later. Attendance at Ebro dropped by up to 40 percent.

“That took a lot of money out of the state of Florida, a lot of tax money,” remembers Stockton Hess with a shake of his head. “It was almost immeasurable.”

But then, aided by a pro-gaming clique in the Legislature, things began to change. Minors were allowed to accompany their parents to the track. Racing was allowed on Sundays. And Florida’s pari-mutuels were allowed to open penny-ante poker rooms with a $10 pot limit. Ebro’s owners cleared out the dining room and set up 13 poker tables which, at first, could only operate while the dogs were actually racing. So, the track provided races 240 days a year.

“With the beaches being family oriented, attendance really boomed at that time,” Mark Hess said of the state’s decision to let minors go to the track. But poker, he added, was really the track’s “salvation.”

Poker’s influence

On a recent Monday afternoon, a small group of about 60 gamblers gathers on the second floor of the Ebro track, sitting at green-felt covered poker tables while dealers shuffle the decks and deal the cards.

The pot is unlimited and the tables are open 18 hours on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends and holidays. The state will collect taxes on the winnings and the county government gets about $1 out of every $4 the state collects. This year the track expects its racing taxes to be about $355,000 (despite an estimated 20 percent drop off in attendance because of the oil spill’s effects on tourism) and poker probably slightly higher. It’s estimated the county will get about $100,000 this year from just the poker table taxes.

“Most people in the county don’t realize that. We’re good neighbors,” says Stockton Hess, adding that the track was recently recognized as Washington County’s business of the year.

Eventually, he hopes the state will ease even more restrictions and allow all pari-mutuels to operate slot machines, like the tracks and fronton in Broward and Miami-Dade now do.

“Years ago the restrictions were good,” reflects Stockton Hess. “They regulated the industry and controlled how much gambling was out there. But now, Internet gambling and Indian casinos (are) not restricted at all, they’re running 24-7. But we’re still restricted. Definitely not a level playing field.”

The state’s 27 pari-mutuel permits are in good locations where they can attract tourists to their betting parlors, he reasons. What better way to provide more incentives for tourists, save the lagging pari-mutuel industry and pour more dollars into the state’s coffers?

When asked if he sees a future for the dog tracks, Hess hesitates and then says, “If the state someday helps this industry by giving us other products to compete with, we’ll maintain what we have, including the jobs.”

The History of the Greyhound

Evidence of dogs similar to the greyhound have been found in archeological excavation sites in Turkey dating back to 6,000 B.C. Cleopatra was said to fancy greyhounds and the breed is even mentioned in the Bible. In Proverbs 30: 29-31, King Solomon said, “There be three things which go well, yea ... are comely in going: a greyhound; and a goat also; and a king against whom there is no rising up.”

While first used as hunters, the breed’s racing ability was recognized by the British in the mid-1700s. Greyhounds were introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1800s and Gen. George Custer took a liking to the dogs, taking a kennel of them wherever he went. (While Custer didn’t survive the battle of Little Big Horn, his dogs did.)

The first successful greyhound track in the U.S. was built in 1920 in Tulsa, Okla. By 1930, there were 67 tracks in the nation and the sport continued to spread around the country during the 1930s and 1940s. There are currently 40 tracks in 12 states. Of those, 16 are in Florida and three are in the 850 — Jefferson County Kennel Club, Ebro Greyhound Park and Pensacola Greyhound Track.

Source: National Greyhound Associate, The Greyhound Review

CORRIDOR UP CLOSE

Florida remains the leader in greyhound racing in the United States with 18 permit holders operating at 13 tracks throughout the state — but attendance is dwindling. A total of 3,928 performances, including charity and scholarship performances, were conducted during the 2008–2009 state fiscal year (the most recent data available). That represents a decrease of 20 percent from the previous fiscal year. Total paid attendance decreased by 47 percent from the prior year and total greyhound revenue to the state decreased by 33 percent. The greyhound industry accounted for approximately 41 percent of Florida’s total revenue from pari-mutuel performances. The state realized revenue from regular performances of approximately $17.3 million, a decrease of 25 percent from the prior fiscal year. In the same year, the state revenue from card rooms was $10.5 million.

Source: Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation

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