Ever hear the saying "hold your horses?" Well, it looks like West Kentucky Development Corp. needs to reign theirs in. This is the partnership between Churchill Downs and Keeneland spearheading a new Standardbred track with up to 12 days of horse racing and 365 days of video slot machines in Oak Grove.
But the project hit a bump in the road as a competing race track filed a lawsuit against the $150 million development that's supposed to open, at least in part, later this year.
If you've not heard the news you're not alone. I've been speaking to groups throughout the Southern Pennyrile and most aren't aware, including a group of 39 pastors and church leaders I spoke to on Monday. Only a handful acknowledged they heard of the proposal. This is because the public has been shut out of this major public policy decision.
There's been no public input from the people of Oak Grove and the Southern Pennyrile region. The legislature hasn't passed any new law. Nor have there have been legislative hearings to determine the legality of the video slots they call "instant racing."
Kentucky Downs contends in their lawsuit that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) didn't follow its own rules when it issued a racing license to Churchill Downs and Keeneland back in November. They also believe that "one or more of the commissioners may have a financial interest in Churchill Downs," a glaring conflict of interest.
At the same time the KHRC issued a new track license, they were simultaneously fining Churchill Downs $1000/day for violating their own administrative rules regarding proper operation of the "instant racing" machines. Any of this should have been enough to halt this fast-track process that is clearly off course.
The siren song of video slots says "Join us for fun and entertainment, you might just walk out a multi-millionaire." More often than not, serious gamblers will more likely end up crashing on the rocks of disappointment.
The unsuspecting visitor will be fleeced, especially the soldiers. Many young enlisted troops–with a new paycheck in their pocket and who are separated from their families will soon find themselves separated from their hard-earned cash. Those with no idea they were prone to addiction will discover the hard way. That's because video slots with their bells and fast-action spinning wheels are addiction delivery devices meant to mesmerize players and keep them playing.
The military town of Oak Grove will be left to pick up the pieces of those who succumb to addiction. When people develop addiction they turn to pastors for counsel. When families lose their income they turn to churches and charities to help pay the light bill and put food on the table. When crime increases there will be greater burden on the police and judges. At what point does the cost-benefit analysis indicate the costs of casinos are far greater than any benefits they might bring?
Kentucky Downs contends in its lawsuit that Churchill and Keeneland failed to do a cost-benefit analysis and assess the economic impact the casino will have on the region. "Based on the criteria that were in place in 2017 and 2018, the commission is required to consider construction cost estimates, revenue projections, market research studies, and to analyze whether the proposed projects are sustainable and in the best interest of the horse industry,"
If such analysis were completed, it would find that legitimate community-building businesses are hurt. That's because they're competing on an uneven playing field, forced to operate without the benefit of having their own slot machines to lure customers.
There will be some who'll surely benefit, primarily developers and Big Horse Racing. The rest are along for a ride, pumped up on dreams of prosperity. But while some business and community leaders chase riches over the rainbow, they're more likely to put Oak Grove on a course to a less stable community in many respects.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonpartisan public policy group based in Frankfort.
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