Down with Dixon Downs?

Group doesn't want racetrack in rural town

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

DIXON - For 74-year-old Stephen Sikes, a retired social worker with a background in biological science, the possibility of building a horse racing track close to his home sent him knocking on doors.

The temperature is a scorching 104 degrees on this cloudless day in late July, with rays of light bouncing off the white concrete on a street void of trees.

Yet Sikes, donning a yellow T-shirt and sweat beads on his forehead, is knocking on doors and ringing bells with Dixon resident Cissie Perkins.

"We're from the Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth. Would you be interested in signing our petition against building the Dixon Downs?" Perkins, 41, asks a man inside his garage.

"I'd rather be with my wife before I sign anything," he replies in Spanish, also commenting he speaks limited English. "We have to be in agreement with all decisions, but I don't think we want it."

Sikes and Perkins smile understandably, leaving behind a possible signature and literature in Spanish for the family to review. They continue on to the next house without losing hope.

The canvassing door knockers are two of more than 50 members who make up Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth, a group of residents who gathered to voice their concerns against a planned thoroughbred horse racing and training facility known as Dixon Downs.

"This is like hanging Dixon on a fool's gold," Sikes says of the racetrack idea. "Dixon is not going to get much money off of this; there's not a lot of money involved for the city."

Nearly five years ago, a proposal for a $250 million racetrack and retail center on a 260-acre site situated along the Interstate 80 corridor, south of Vaughn Road and east of Pedrick Road in Dixon, was offered by Ontario-based Magna Entertainment Corp., America's largest racetrack company. It will be the first major U.S. racetrack built in 70 years.

Since then, Magna submitted a formal proposal consisting of a horse racing track to be used 100 days of the year, a simulcast pavilion that can be used for betting any day of the year on any horse race worldwide, a training facility with 42 barns and 1,400 horse stalls, an 1,800 seat open-air grandstand and a 200,000 square-foot finish line/entertainment pavilion.

The construction of the track is also slated to create about 2,500 jobs, with an additional 2,500 to 3,000 positions available once the track is built. Dixon Downs states that it will be the largest single property tax generator in the city of Dixon and will generate more than $800,000 per year in net new discretionary revenue.

But this proposal, which promises to be a state-of-the art facility by Dixon Downs and Magna, does not settle well with certain citizens of the community. They foresee traffic congestion, increased crime, reduced air quality and a social impact of gambling.

As a result, DCQG was formed earlier this year to campaign against the proposal.

The members, recognized by their yellow T-shirts or stickers with the words "Dump the Downs," meet at least once a week to organize mailings, canvassing, research and speeches in hopes of raising awareness to what they believe would compromise Dixon's quality of life.

"I'm not morally against gambling; that could bring some people some fun," Perkins says. "Just not in my back yard."

Sign on the dotted line

Standing behind a covered poker table, situated by the door at Dixon's Safeway Food and Drug on Stratford Avenue, are Sikes and Perkins. A sign that states "Opposed to the Horse Race Track? Sign our Petition" hangs freely before them.

"Are you against the racetrack?" Sikes asks a few shoppers before they enter the market.

"No, I race thoroughbreds," answers one and smiles.

"Yes, I don't want it. Where do I sign?" answers another. "I like this quality growth thing; it's a positive thing."

It's a Tuesday afternoon in June and the California weather is just warming up. But for the couple standing before a waist-high table handing out brochures, fliers and information packets on Dixon Downs, the issue is heated.

"This is very important to me because I did not choose to live near a gambling facility," says Perkins, who expends 20 hours a week on the campaign.

Perkins and her husband purchased their first house in Dixon earlier this year after spending 13 years in military housing. It is located 2 miles from the proposed site.

"We wanted to live in a nice quiet town, but bringing this type of facility is not visually pleasing," she says, comparing what she believes could happen in Dixon to her experiences in other towns where gambling was permitted and traffic was abundant.

"After reading about the proposal in the paper, I started researching and saw how they (Magna) push for slot machines to make it profitable and I really don't like that," she adds.

But John O'Farrell, Dixon Downs project manager, says there will be no slot machines at the facility. After all, it is not allowed under California law.

"Proposition 68 was not approved," he says in response to slot machines at the track. Proposition 68, which would have permitted slot machines at racetracks, was opposed in 2004 by 8.9 million California voters, or 84 percent.

What is essential to the proposed racetrack, O'Farrell comments, is the commercial aspect of the business, such as offices and retail stores.

"People will be coming to shop, dine and see a show," he affirms. "It won't be a destination resort but rather a destination to go to."

According to the American Horse Council, the horse industry has a direct economic effect on the United States of $39 billion annually. And in California alone, the economic impact of the horse industry produces goods and services valued at $4.1 billion.

If this is a valuable source of income for Dixon (population 17,000), why are so many residents fighting against Magna's proposal?

"That's a good question," O'Farrell replies. "The issues they raise are the same issues we have actually tackled head on and we've created our own material, myth versus fact.

"Each criticism is addressed and an answer is provided," he adds. "There will be no slot machines. California law does not allow it."

Nevertheless, Perkins would rather see something educational in that vast space of land or even a hospital, since Dixon is void of one.

"It seems like something should be built to add to people's future, not deplete them of anything they have," Perkins expresses.

Don't pollute

Sikes, who has a master's degree in social work and a bachelor's in environmental studies, has additional concerns to Perkins' gambling worries.

"Diesel produces particulate matter 2.5 and it dawned on me, 'Holy Smokes,' we will have Dixon Downs trucks going in and out of Dixon carrying the feeding and bedding," he says in disbelief.

Particulate matter, a mixture of microscopic solid and liquid droplets suspended in air, could penetrate the lining of the lungs and eventually go into the blood stream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The ghastly thing is that we have no way of measuring the air pollution in Dixon," Sikes voices in concern. "I can't seem to get people to pay attention to this issue."

But there are air monitoring systems already in place in Vacaville and Davis, according to Kathy Coulter, public information officer at Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District, and together, they encompass the Dixon area.

"Yolo and Solano are relatively clean and we hardly ever have an exceedance (of PM10 standard)," she says, but also states new standards have recently been developed for PM2.5, and the AQMD does not have enough historical data for PM2.5, so it remains unclassified for state standards.

"It's been changed because studies show that PM2.5 is the more serious size because it's so small it can be embedded in the lungs," she adds.

Her concern, however, involves the ozone layer in the local region.

"In this region, approximately 70 percent of ozone problems are a result of trucks both on and off the road that contribute to the rate of emissions," she says. "If you're creating something to draw more traffic and trucks are the source, you're probably going to impact that."

These issues will be addressed in the Environmental Impact Report, O'Farrell says, which is a document required by the state that needs to be submitted to the City Council for approval or denial of the project.

"Every environmental impact of the project will be addressed in the EIR," he says in response to concerns regarding traffic, gambling and pollution. The EIR was scheduled to be released in February but has been pushed back several times throughout the year. O'Farrell believes the report should be out by mid-September.

"When it is finally presented for review, they (the public and City Council) will be able to comment and make their own judgments," he continues. "The City Council is in the position to impose mitigation to whatever those difficult issues are."

In addition to an increase of traffic in and around the area, with many trying to find backroads through residential areas as an answer to the congestion, Sikes says the city will not receive a large percentage of revenue as promised by Magna.

"The Tucker Bill states that we get .33 percent of 1 percent of local live racing," he contends. "But here's the trick: Live racing is only 100 days in a year, the other days are simulcast racing, of which we don't get anything."

Moreover, the horse racing industry has been hurt by the advent of casinos and technology, according to the California Racing Board, leaving a decline in attendance at horse races.

"The Tucker Bill specifically limits wages to those actually placed in person on races that are being run at that time on that track," adds Mary Ann Montegue, a member of the DCQG. "What the corporation is really trying to do is put in a facility that will be satellite wagering on a global basis and the Tucker Bill does not touch any of that wagering."

The gift

On Aug. 16, Sikes presented the City Council with 1,700 form letters, 1,500 from residents and 200 from those outside city limits, proclaiming their protest to Dixon Downs.

Behind the podium is Gordon Hammond, Dixon Chamber of Commerce president. And surrounding him, in a room half-filled with folks in yellow shirts, are residents of Dixon who are both for and against the proposal.

"The planning commission has the support of the business community," he tells the council members. "We're confident you'll do your job correctly. I believe the report (EIR) will be dealt with properly and you'll make the decision based on facts and not emotions."

Michael Ceremello of Dixon follows Hammond to the podium.

"I think their opinions are just opinions like ours. They're not facts," he says. "This is not a debate. Frankly, I think you need to look at a letter from the Sierra Club that states this process (delay in receiving the EIR) has been corrupted.

"The way it stands now, through this wonderful process, sheds a shady light on the EIR," he adds, then calmly walks away to his chair.

Coffee and stuff

It's a late Sunday afternoon in August and more than 15 members of DCQG are assembling information packets inside a conference room at Java Coffee, Int'l in Dixon.

A large map of Dixon sits on a table with various streets highlighted in pink. These are the areas that DCQG have already canvassed.

"We did 500 information packets today," says one member to another of the envelopes, which include brochures, petitions in English and Spanish and a self-addressed envelope to DCQG.

"I asked the librarian for permission to put all our material in a binder for anyone who questions what we say," Montegue says to the crowd. "She said she would allow it in the library.

"I'd also like to encourage the group to turn the letters into City Council," she says, and the group nods in agreement. "It shows momentum."

They continue to converse, sitting intensely around an oblong table, and laugh on occasion as some form of tension breaker.

"We still have a ways to go," Sikes says.