Placing A $10 Million Bet On Gretna

Gadsden County’s economy — and local horse breeders — will realize big benefits from a new quarter horse racetrack under construction in Gretna and set to open this winter.

Placing A $10 Million Bet On Gretna Alabama Tribe gambles on Northwest Florida embracing Quarter Horse racetrack By Linda Kleindienst Originally published in the Aug/Sept 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

In the movie “Secretariat,” five horses portrayed the Triple Crown champion. Four were thoroughbreds. The fifth was an American Quarter Horse named Copper Locks, best remembered for his scene-stealing work on the track, where he kicks in with a quick burst of speed to pass the field and win a heart-stopping race.

Quarter Horses are natural sprinters, able to outrun their thoroughbred cousins only on a short course or in the movies. But North Florida will soon get the chance to watch them show off their quick-paced talents at a new racetrack in Gretna. The project — a partnership that includes Alabama’s Poarch Band of Creek Indians — is expected to be a boon to the local horse industry and economic development efforts in Gadsden County, where the median income is $25,000 and more than 30 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line.

Ultimately, local leaders hope the track — and its poker room — will generate up to $6 million a year for the area’s economy.

Construction has been underway for months, with a projected opening this winter. More than 200 workers are already on the job building the new facility. Another 200 will be hired to operate it after it opens. Poker will come first, then racing.

“This is really the catalyst for our entire economic development strategy,” said Antonio Jefferson, Gretna’s city manager. “This is more than just a track. It’s more than gaming. Ultimately it will be a world-class equestrian facility, and we hope it will attract other events.”

Creek Entertainment Gretna is a partnership of PCI Gaming Authority, the gaming arm of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians based in Atmore, Ala., and Equestrian Land Holdings. PCI Gaming already operates three casinos in central and southern Alabama and acquired the Mobile and Pensacola Greyhound Parks in 2009.

“The more we looked into it, the more people we found interested in horses and the more the area seemed underserved,” Jay Dorris, president and CEO of PCI Gaming, said of the Tribe’s decision to get involved with the Gretna project. “We see this as a good business opportunity. I think it will really blossom.”

This is the Tribe’s first foray into horse racing, an effort to diversify, explained Keith Martin, chairman of the PCI Gaming Authority.

“We’ve talked about this for two or three years, and we felt we could get a good return on what we put into this project,” he said. “We feel there is an untapped market of people out there that would like to come and see horse-type events.”

While PCI, the managing partner and majority owner, handles the poker operation, the horse racing end of the business will be overseen by David Romanik, an Ocala-based developer and horseman who worked 20 years as a lawyer for Gulfstream Park in South Florida and served a year as president of the thoroughbred track in 2000.

“My family was involved in Gulfstream since 1944,” said Romanik, president and CEO of Gretna Racing LLC. “But I had a lot of interest in running my own track. I owned a bunch of thoroughbreds, but I’m just attracted to the speed of Quarter Horses.”

Jefferson’s loss, Gadsden’s gain

It’s been a four-year journey to this point. Jefferson County was the first choice for the track’s location. But after some contentious hearings, where hundreds showed up to protest, it became clear the community didn’t want it. The Jefferson County Commission killed the project in January 2008.

Sitting in the audience that night was someone from Gadsden County who saw potential — and passed the word on. Gadsden and Gretna officials were more than willing to step up to the plate.

“It’s been years since a new business opened here. We only have two stores in the city limits,” said Gretna Mayor Clarence Johnson. “One of the few things Gretna has to offer is land, so we want to use the natural resources we have to bring income to the city.”

He said the city, which offered some easements and tax breaks, plans to help promote and brand the entertainment venue that the track will offer, hoping to lure in locals, tourists and Interstate travelers with concerts and other events.

“Snowbirds come to Panama City each year, and we’re only an hour away. We believe we will have a large appeal,” Johnson said. And an estimated 500,000 adults over the age of 18 live within an hour’s drive of the facility.

The track site is located about three miles from downtown Gretna, just off the Interstate 10 interchange at State Road 12 on what was once a 100-plus-acre cotton field. The city has been given 10 acres to set up a public safety station and will hire an additional four police officers. And city officials hope to see the area become the site of a hotel, restaurants, a sports village and perhaps even new housing developed nearby.

“Our ultimate goal is to make that interchange a destination,” said Jefferson, the city manager. “This is about building Gretna one brick at a time. This brings Gretna to the attention of people and will ultimately bring in investment. We’re looking at it as an economic engine, and we believe spinoffs will happen as a result.”

One of the major selling points for the project was the notion that it will be an experience with variety, something families will be able to enjoy.

“One of the things that really impressed us is that we’re dealing with people who are interested in investing in and creating an experience for people that they won’t be able to get otherwise,” Jefferson said.

Florida’s Horse Industry

Rica Barrett, owner of Windfall Farm, has been breeding Quarter Horses in Tallahassee since 1991, when she bought a thoroughbred stallion from a trainer and matched him with a Quarter Horse mare — trying to “get the mind of a Quarter Horse into a thoroughbred’s body.”

She’s one of many such horse breeders who dot the North Florida landscape, shipping their horses across the world to race in places as varied as Louisiana, Brazil and Canada.

“It’s a big industry, and I enjoy it,” she said, pointing out that recent national reports show Quarter Horse tracks are increasing their racing dates — and the size of winning purses — because the sport’s popularity is growing.

The excitement is there, naturally. Imagine a horse running 400 yards in 19 seconds. “That’s four football fields, 40 yards short of a quarter mile, in 19 seconds. That’s the record,” said Barrett, who likes to call Quarter Horses “the workingman’s horse” because their sale prices usually number in the thousands, not the millions that thoroughbreds can go for.

The Gadsden track will not only be a boon to breeders like herself, but Barrett said she can see the domino economic effect the track will have, helping local farriers, hay and feed stores, and veterinarians.

“Think of how many industries feed into horse activity, especially something that regularly draws people from out of town,” she said. “Think of the jobs.”

With 500,000 horses — 70 percent of them used for competition and recreation — Florida has the third largest horse population in the U.S., behind California (1 million) and Texas (700,000). The state has 600 horse farms. In North Florida and South Georgia alone there are an estimated 50,000 –75,000 horses.

The horse industry has a $5.2 billion impact on the state’s economy — and that doesn’t include off-site spending by spectators at hotels, restaurants and other businesses surrounding equine facilities and events. The state currently has five horse tracks. Three offer thoroughbred racing (Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens, Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach and Tampa Bay Downs), while Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park in Pompano Beach showcases harness racing and Hialeah Park runs Quarter Horse meets.

“Horse racing is an integral and popular part of Florida’s equine culture that has thus far been limited to South and Central Florida. Despite the popularity of horses and equestrian activities among residents in North Florida, the region lacks a state-of-the-art equestrian facility or horse track,” said Romanik, who is an attorney and gaming consultant specializing in horse racing. “We saw an unmet need in North Florida and wanted to use our expertise and passion for horse racing and equestrian activities to create a gateway community that will become a regional destination in the Red Hills and Big Bend region.”

That’s welcome news to Barrett, who now races in Louisiana but shuns Hialeah because it’s too far away.

Dorris, who owns nine horses, said the Tribe might try to eventually change the Pensacola dog permit to a horse-racing permit in hopes of creating a Quarter Horse racing circuit that covers North Florida, Alabama and maybe Georgia.

“We hope to grow this into a circuit, establish points, have a champion,” he said. “It’s in our heads right now, mostly. Our first step is in Gadsden County. Hopefully it will be successful and we can keep on going.”