Council OKs Dixon Downs; Opponents Want Vote

Dixon Downs, Magna Entertainment Corp.'s "dream track" for Northern California, got a giant step closer to reality the evening of Oct. 23. But a local group that opposes the project is pushing for a referendum on the project in 2007.

Six years after Frank Stronach first pitched his vision to this farm town 20 miles west of Sacramento, the Dixon City Council approved plans for Dixon Downs, a $250-million state-of-the-art racetrack, entertainment, and shopping complex. After five years of commuting regularly from Toronto, Ontario, to the Sacramento Valley, MEC official Lorne Kumer was pleased with the outcome.

"All the pros and cons were weighed, and the benefits of the project far outweighed the negatives," said Kumer, vice president of development for MEC. "The city of Dixon negotiated a development agreement that will certainly do a lot of things for this town."

Following more than a dozen hearings before the city's planning commission and council, Dixon Downs won unanimous approval of its massive final Environmental Impact Report, a foot-thick tome that covered everything from flood control to cultural changes for the community of 17,500 residents. The council voted 4-1 on the city's development agreement with MEC, rezoning, and other changes necessary to clear the way for construction.

"This is going to cause change, no doubt, but I think it might be a risk worth taking," councilman Loren Ferrero said.

To be built on 260 freeway-side acres, Dixon Downs would include a 1 1/8-mile synthetic surface, a one-mile double-wide inner turf course, and a Finish Line Pavilion that could double as a concert hall. Upscale shops, hotel, conference center, movie theater complex, and restaurants would form a gateway to the racetrack.

The concept is similar to the new Gulfstream Park. MEC officials originally expected Dixon Downs to be completed before its Florida counterpart. But delays in the entitlement process kept pushing the project further back.

With no more delays, MEC officials estimate 18 to 24 months would be needed before construction could begin. The venue also needs approval of the California Horse Racing Board for potential race dates. The earliest Dixon Downs could open for racing would be spring 2010.

Designed as a year-round training center, Dixon Downs also could accommodate 1,440 horses with a backstretch modeled after Palm Meadows in South Florida.

The site is located at Pedrick Road on the south side of Interstate 80, the major freeway linking Sacramento and the Bay Area. Dixon Downs would be about 45 minutes from Golden Gate Fields, MEC's Bay Area track in Albany. As another plus, the site is only five minutes from University of California-Davis, which has a top equine veterinary program.

The project still faces a possible referendum. Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth, made up of anti-gambling residents, started a petition campaign Oct. 24. The group has 30 days and needs roughly 700 signatures--10% of the town's registered voters--to force a special election on the racetrack in March 2007.

Opponents believe the racetrack is a Trojan horse for slot machines and consider Dixon Downs a casino in the making. But under current California law, such gaming is reserved only for Indian tribes and rancherias and prohibited at racetracks. To help qualm the argument, MEC requested specific language in the development agreement that Dixon citizens must approve any other gaming at the track--even if allowed by state law.

On the other side, union members from local building trade unions have voiced repeated support for the project, which is expected to provide thousands of jobs for at least a decade.