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Track officials counter home rule fears over slots
By Deborah Donovan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/4/2010 12:00 AM

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The stakes for horse race tracks in Illinois are too high to worry about any concerns villages like Arlington Heights may have about losing local control, the president of Arlington Park said Monday.

Roy A. Arnold, president of the Arlington Heights racetrack, and Michael Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, and state Rep. Mark Beaubien, a Barrington Hills Republican, met with the Daily Herald editorial board to urge support of a bill allowing 1,200 slot machines at Arlington Park.

Arlington Heights officials have protested any effort to allow slots at the racetrack without approval from the village, which has home rule power.

It's jobs that are important since the $300 million annually the state expects to realize from the slots would back $300 billion in bonds for capital improvements in the state, said Beaubien. Arnold said he does not see home rule as a major issue.

"I don't know what is served by the relationship to the larger issues we're all facing. This issue of home rule relative to the scope of issues trying to deal with on this bill is lost to me," he said. "The Sheraton is dark. We're talking about jobs and tax revenue. I get a little bit upset at this."

While the village board has not taken a stand on the machines at the track, it did amend its ordinance outlawing video poker machines to allow consideration of them at the track.

Both Arnold and Mayor Arlene Mulder said this was a sign of the village board's support for the track.

"The fact that they exempted us is a recent indication that the thinking has changed," said Arnold. "But I'm not in a position to say that I'm willing to bet my business and the jobs of the people who are dependent on me on the potential outcome of a side discussion."

Riverboat casinos have cut business at the state's tracks by 40 percent, said Arnold, and the legislature has been trying for more than a decade to fix the damage to the racing industry.

"We don't want a subsidy. Let us compete like any other business within our industry," said Arnold. "We are in the gaming business. We are asking for the state to diversify what we can offer."

Arlington Park offers $25 million in purses annually, and hopes to double that if slots are allowed but is competing with tracks around the country that have much larger purses because their states allow them to have slot machines and casinos.

Mayor Arlene Mulder called it a "speculative bill at this time. Obviously we are trying to talk about what's going on, but it's a fluid thing."

Arlington Heights collects a total of $800,000 annually from the track, said Thomas Kuehne, director of finance for the village. The Sheraton Chicago Northwest, which closed in December, gave the village $400,000 plus property taxes.

Slots would mean at least $6 million annually for the village, said Arnold.

Arnold criticized the village board and said racing interests insisted the local governments get 5 percent of what's available from the slot machines.

"Why do (village board members) have to wait for me to come to them to take a position on it? This is not a new issue. Why aren't they addressing it pre-emptively? Why do I need to be the one carrying your water?" he asked.

Mulder, contacted later, said the bill has come up so many times in the last decade and gone away, the village has been careful about determining what it will support.

""It's a seesaw thing. One day good; one day bad," she said.

Arnold said if Arlington Heights were allowed to opt out while other municipalities let their tracks have slot machines, "it puts us at even a worse competitive disadvantage."

Arlington Heights would still have the power to issue building permits and address any zoning issues, he said.