Special Election to Decide Dixon Downs' Fate

The fate of Magna Entertainment Corporation’s $250 million state-of-the-art racetrack for Northern California will be decided in a special election April 17 by the city of Dixon, a town of 17,500 residents 19 miles west of Sacramento.

Dixon’s city council voted 5-0 on Jan. 9 to put four referendums on the racetrack before the voters after the city clerk certified petitions opposing the project. With about 700 valid signatures needed to force the special election, the petitions sought to overturn the council’s Oct. 23 approval of the track’s environmental impact report and basic development agreement.

Magna has sought Dixon’s approval for more than six years for its proposed track, which would be the first major racing venue to be built in California in a half century. The company owns 260 freeway-side acres along Interstate 80, the major corridor between Sacramento and the Bay Area. The site is less than an hour away from MEC’s Golden Gate Fields.

Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth, which conducted the petition drive, has fought the track on the basis that it would erode Dixon’s “small-town charm” while causing more traffic and other big-city problems.

"Our goal was to let the people decide," member Cissie Perkins told the Sacramento Bee.

Nicknamed “Lambtown USA,” Dixon already has blossomed into a growing bedroom community with new subdivisions but few services, retail outlets or forms of entertainment. Dixon Downs would serve as an entertainment, retail and sports complex with about 1 million square feet of commercial space for shops, movie theaters and restaurants in addition to the track’s Finish Line Pavilion, which would double as a concert venue and grandstand. The racing facilities would be used as a year-round training center modeled after MEC’s Palm Meadows.

Former Dixon mayor Don Erickson, a longtime racetrack proponent and current MEC advisor, said the Downs backers would mount a public education campaign.

"It would be our duty to inform people and encourage them to get out and vote," Erickson said. "I think they'll agree that this is a good project, not only for Dixon but for the whole region."

MEC has polled Dixon residents regularly in recent months and found a core of supporters as well as some hard-core opponents. But despite six years of civic debate, most residents still appear undecided or uniformed, according to Erickson.

"After all that (discussion and publicity), 23 percent thought we were talking about a racetrack for cars not horses," he said. "Another 18 percent didn't know if it was for cars or horses. We have a whole influx of people in this town who sleep here but may not know much other than what they read in the newspaper. The key thing will be those undecided (residents)."

The Dixon Downs referendum may be the only thing on the ballot in April's off-season special election, which will cost the city about $55,000.

Dixon Downs has strong support from local trades unions and chamber of commerce, which see it as a major economic boon. MEC has asked for no public funding and agreed to make major improvements to roads and other infrastructure.

In addition, the site is less than five miles from University of California-Davis and its renowned equine health program. That includes the state’s major equine drug testing facility, the Kenneth Maddy Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory.

If approved by the voters, Dixon Downs could break ground within a year. Approvals would still be needed from the California Horse Racing Board, but the track could seek its first dates in fall 2009 or early 2010.