It appears that the legions of lobbyists on both sides of the racino debate can take a brief rest for the first time in nearly a decade.
Canterbury Park and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, who run the nearby Mystic Lake Casino, announced a partnership Monday that, if deemed legal, would fatten purses at the racetrack by roughly $75 million over 10 years.
It also would end racino advocates’ expensive lobbying bid to allow slot machines at the state’s horse racetracks.
The historic agreement would require tribal contributions to enhance the racetrack’s purses — which have been declining for years — in exchange for an agreement to lobby against expanded gambling – including any racino facility at north metro’s Running Aces Harness Park, Canterbury’s former ally at the Capitol.
“We’re very excited about this,” Edward Stevenson, president of the gaming enterprise that operates Mystic Lake, said at Monday’s press conference. “It’s certainly a monumental day to be sitting here and talking about an arrangement after so many years of occasional fights down at the Legislature.”
Expanded gambling efforts likely sidelined
Because of the agreement, it’s likely talk of expanded gambling will die down at the Capitol for the foreseeable future, according to both racino advocates and opponents, as well as lawmakers who represent the Shakopee area and the leaders of both Canterbury and Mystic Lake.
“I guess my sense is that discussion of a larger-scale gaming effort in Minnesota, at least at this point without racino, is probably over for a while,” Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said in an interview. Senjem introduced the racino legislation that failed this session.
“I don’t sense any other cause that would bring it to the floor that can’t and shouldn’t otherwise be addressed through … building a strong and robust Minnesota economy.”
Many also expect the lobbying war’s cease-fire to bring new life to Minnesota’s flagging horse industry, which could spread the benefits of higher winnings at Canterbury across the state.
“It’s like my horses just got a raise today,” Randy Weidner, president of the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Association, said. “You see the mood. There are smiles on everybody. I’m at Canterbury right now in my barn, and everybody’s smiling and happy and very excited about it … It’s a very exciting moment and a historic day in Minnesota racing.”
A boost for state’s hurting equine industry
Minnesota’s equine and horseracing industry have been hurting for some time.
Canterbury President Randy Sampson said the number of thoroughbred foals born in Minnesota declined from several hundred a few years ago to fewer than 100 this year.
Weidner, a breeder and trainer, said he had 10 mares for breeding four years ago. Now he only has one.
Last year, Weidner took his horses to Miami to race — an 1,800-mile journey. They made more money there – even with travel expenses included — than they did in Minnesota.
That’s why Canterbury lobbyists have been pushing for a racino with such fervor. The extra revenue would have allowed larger purses, which in turn would draw more high-class breeders and racers and would allow the racetrack to compete with other, more successful venues across the nation.
While this deal won’t bring in the magnitude of cash a racino would, it does give the struggling track a big boost.
“It doesn’t put them where they would be with the racino … but the purse money is definitely a needed increase,” Weidner said. “Is more always better? In a lot of cases, but this gets the purses back up to the level where people can maintain a living.”
He said he’d now consider adding another mare.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
The impact of those increases also goes beyond jobs at the racetrack but also ripples through other of the state’s economic sectors, including agriculture and veterinary medicine.
“This will be a very, very significant boost to the rural economy in Minnesota,” Sampson said at the deal’s announcement.
How they struck a deal
In May, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a deal that the tribe and Canterbury reached late last session that allowed for 30 additional card tables at the racetrack and horseracing broadcasts at the state’s tribal casinos.
Sampson said serious discussions about Monday’s deal began about a month ago — during session — with urging from Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Zellers. The racetrack approached the tribe with what appeared to be a win-win proposition for the longtime foes.
John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which opposes racinos and any other gambling expansion, said the tribes – which traditionally fund Democratic candidates – found a new ally in the conservative Republicans who swept into office in 2010.
After dealing with former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, McCarthy said the new anti-gambling conservative element at the Capitol was a welcome addition.
“We have a guy named Kurt Zellers who basically said, ‘Hey, let’s try to turn over a new leaf and work together on things.’ And we did.”
What came out of those discussions appears to benefit both sides, McCarthy added, and appeared to come at an opportune time.
The deal would require the tribe to contribute $2.6 million to the track’s purse this year and ramp up the payment to $8 million from 2018 through 2022 — a total of $75 million.
It would also entail roughly $8.5 million in payments to Canterbury over the decade as part of a joint marketing effort to showcase the different amenities each site offers — and how they might play off each other.
The deal still must be approved by the Minnesota Racing Commission, which is expected to decide on the matter later this month.
But the $80 million-plus contribution prompted some to question whether the tribe was simply buying Canterbury’s silence on the issue of racinos. With the deal, Canterbury also agreed to oppose expanded gambling at Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus.
Bob Farinella, general manager at Running Aces, said the track declined to comment specifically before reviewing the terms of the new agreement. He also declined to comment on whether the racetrack would look to partner with a neighboring tribe for a similar agreement.
“We will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve [this] agreement and partnership,” Sampson said. “That would include really any expansion of gambling that would jeopardize the health of our agreement and the status of this situation.”
But Mystic Lake’s Stevenson maintained that it’s an “unfair characterization” to describe the deal as the casino simply buying the track’s support.
He said the joint marketing venture would hopefully attract reciprocity between Canterbury-goers and Mystic Lake guests.
Stevenson also noted that the marketing efforts would serve to increase the casino’s business prospects and improve the overall tourist landscape of the southwest metro area, which is home to several other popular attractions, including Valleyfair amusement park, the annual Renaissance Festival and The Wilds golf course.
“We’re very excited about the prospects of this business arrangement,” he said.
While many consider the racino issue put to bed, the tribes remain wary of other attempts to expand gambling in future legislative sessions.
Both Stevenson and Sampson said they’ll be able to relax their lobbying efforts slightly, but that doesn’t mean the tribes will be complacent.
“I’m a little reluctant to say that because we never do,” McCarthy said. “We go into every session pretty well geared up and ready to approach the issue of [gambling] expansion the same way we always do.”
Strangely, perhaps the largest threat of expanded gaming comes from within the tribes themselves.
The White Earth Ojibwe, the state’s most populous tribe, tried and failed this session to gain permission to open a metro-area casino.fund. The tribe had offered to fund the state’s portion of the Vikings stadium proposal in return.
Erma Vizenor, the White Earth tribal chairwoman, said her band would be back at the Capitol next session and could begin prepping as early as July.
“It’s over for this year. However the state’s financial situation isn’t over,” Vizenor said. “I don’t think gaming is done in Minnesota.”
And although the racino issue could return if the 10-year agreement isn’t renewed, most have written it off for now – even its supporters.
“I think there’s a certain level of sadness, if you will, that we were never able to pass that bill and, in many cases, not even come close,” Senjem said. “I guess we just turn the page on history for a while.”