Saturday, September 29, 2001

Churchill to modernize


Venerable race track unveils four-year, $127M plan

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Mold-stained bricks dot a bumpy walkway leading past betting booths. Paint peels from weather-worn rafters overhead.

        The signs of decay signify that Churchill Downs — an enduring symbol to thoroughbred racing fans — hasn't always aged gracefully.

        “This place reminds me of a grandparent's house. It's charming, but once you get past the charm, it needs repair,” a track spokesman said.

        Patchwork maintenance will soon give way to massive reconstruction.

        Churchill Downs executives on Friday outlined a $127 million modernization plan — the most ambitious in the track's history.

        The track's parent company wants to add corporate suites, sports bars and lounges — staples at other sports venues. Grandstands and clubhouses will be replaced or renovated. A satellite wagering facility will be built to accommodate year-round simulcast betting.

        The famous Twin Spires will be spared, but little else will be the same.

        Churchill Downs Inc. is willing to spend $100 million to renovate its flagship track, but has asked state and local governments to pitch in assistance. The track is home to the Kentucky Derby.

        Construction will start in December, after the fall meet, and is expected to pick up pace after the 2002 spring meet.

        Work is expected to continue into 2005, and will turn the 2004 Derby into the “Demolition Derby” because much of the clubhouse will be under construction, track president Alex Waldrop said.

        Once completed, the project is meant to put Churchill on solid footing with entertainment rivals, especially a nearby Indiana riverboat casino.

        “We're making dust because we're not going to eat dust any longer. We're tired of it,” Mr. Waldrop said at a news conference, which started with the track's bugler playing “call to post” and ended with a high school girls' choir singing “My Old Kentucky Home.

        Churchill officials said the Derby and Kentucky Oaks generate about $217 million in economic activity yearly, and that the track's success is vital for the thoroughbred industry in Kentucky.

        The project seeks to preserve tradition while modernizing facilities for racing fans, who have been frequenting the track in smaller numbers.

        “That's the beauty of this plan,” Mr. Waldrop said. “It does it all. It gives us what we need to be competitive, but it hangs on to that all-important brand — those Twin Spires.”

        The project would add nearly 5,300 seats to the track, which has seating for 48,500. Attendance soars for the Derby, which attracted a crowd of 153,210 this past May, as people throng onto the track's infield.

        The addition of 66 corporate suites will highlight the first phase of construction. The suites will be built on the roof of the grandstand east of the Twin Spires. Each suite will seat 25 people. A club and meeting area will go next to the suites, offering a view of Louisville's skyline.

        Also during the first phase, the track will renovate the first and second levels under the Twin Spires, an area known as the Jockey Club that's the oldest part of the 127-year-old facility.

        The first floor of the grandstand will also be renovated.

        The board of directors of Churchill Downs Inc. has approved spending $27 million on the first phase, which is expected to be finished by the start of the track's 2003 fall meet.

        The board endorsed the more ambitious second phase, but stopped short of allocating money. It will review the project next June to assess the availability of funding and the business climate. Churchill Downs said state and local assistance is needed to proceed with the second phase.

        Tom Meeker, president of Churchill Downs Inc., said Friday that the company was determined to proceed despite a national economic slowdown, hastened by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        “We believe and have confidence in the resiliency of this economy, and we are not afraid of what is going to happen over the next 12 months,” Meeker said.

        Gov. Paul Patton has been briefed on the renovation plan and supports looking for ways in which state government can assist, despite a tight state budget, his top Cabinet officer said Friday.

        “This governor believes that we have to look at times like these as times that we invest in the future,” Crit Luallen, Patton's Cabinet secretary, said at the news conference.

        One option for public assistance is forming a special taxing district.
       



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