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REVERE

City fears loss of jobs, income if voters OK dog-racing ban

By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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Predictions in recent years regarding the future of Wonderland Greyhound Park have not centered on if - but when - it will close if slot machines or casino games are not added to the attractions.

But on Tuesday, a question seeking to ban dog racing in the state may cement the struggling track's expiration date, as well as Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park's, to Jan. 1, 2010.

The Committee to Protect Dogs, sponsors of the ballot petition, wants to phase out the state's 70-year dog-racing industry, arguing that it is cruel and inhumane.

Opponents, including officials from both state tracks, argue that the greyhounds are treated with care, that the industry is highly regulated, and that the petition would eliminate hundreds of jobs.

A recent 7News/Suffolk University poll of 400 registered voters indicated that 44 percent favored the ban and 43 percent opposed it. Voters defeated a similar measure in 2000.

Several Revere officials expressed surprise at the close poll results, as well as concern over what a ban would mean to the city in these tight economic times.

A ban "would harm Revere because people who live in Revere who work there would lose their jobs," said Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino. "It's not good economically for a track like that to be dark."

Between Wonderland and Suffolk Downs, which straddles parts of Revere and East Boston, Revere gets under $400,000 annually in pari-mutuel wagering revenue, Ambrosino said. If the ban passes, the city would lose Wonderland's portion, which is about half.

George Anzuoni, Revere's finance director, said Wonderland is the city's eighth biggest taxpayer, and that any loss of revenue at this time would be "devastating for the city."

"Probably close to the majority of people who work here are Revere residents," said Ron Wohlen, assistant general manager and simulcast director at Wonderland.

Even as the track struggles to compete with offshore gaming, out-of-state casinos, and scratch tickets, Wohlen said it is still a significant contributor of revenue for the state and Revere. Last year, Wonderland paid part-time and full-time employees a total of $4.4 million in salaries. Its 2007 real estate taxes, which the track just paid last week, totaled $345,000. Also last year, Wohlen said, the track contributed $117,000 in license fees to the state; $94,000 in assessments; $27,000 in sales and meals tax; $671,000 in live and simulcast wages; and $1.6 million in purses to the kennel and dog owners.

Although petition sponsors centered their argument on the well-being of the dogs, they were also thinking about the track workers who would be displaced, said Brian Adams, spokesman for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell, a lead sponsor of the question.

"That's why there's been a phase-out period of 14 months . . . so people could have a soft landing," Adams said. "When it passes, we are advocating for a bill for money to be allocated to support the workers who have been displaced."

Adams said sponsors were told they could not attach money allocation instructions to a ballot question, and that's why it's not spelled out there.

"It is a question of trust, but when the MSPCA is involved, we stick to our word and work with the Legislature and work with the public constantly," Adams said of the allocation bill that would be proposed. "When we say the money can be spent for retraining, the money could also be used as a severance package if someone is toward or beyond their retirement age."

Track officials have reacted with skepticism to such reassurances.

"It's kind of ludicrous to take a 40-, 50-, 60-year-old person and put them out there in the unemployment market," Wohlen said. "That's a smokescreen, that they'll take care of everybody."

Wonderland offers 100 days of live racing from April to September, but features simulcast year-round, Wohlen said. Crowds at the track can vary between 125 and 575 depending on the day of the week, but nothing close to the thousands who showed up during the track's heyday. Most of the facility is not used anymore, which fuels the negative speculation on the track's future and which has resulted in dwindling morale among employees, most of whom have been there 20 to 35 years, Wohlen said.

"You want an industry to go out on its own accord, not from a political edict," Ambrosino said. "I'm not sure we should be singling out industries for a vote as to whether people want them to survive or not."

Whether the petition, Question 3 on Tuesday's ballot, passes or not, City Councilor Robert J. Haas Jr. said Wonderland officials must assess the track's future as a viable business in the city. In August, track owners entered into a partnership with Suffolk Downs so both could have an advantage in the event of a casino bid in the Boston area. The agreement gives Suffolk Downs the option to purchase Wonderland, raising more questions about the dog track's future, regardless of the petition's outcome.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.

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