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Racetrack proponent gambles on public support.

Don Fudge is extending an invitation to all of Northern Ontario to come to the racetrack in the spring of 2006.

The 57-year-old North Bay businessman is heading a group of investors planning to revive harness racing and introduce slot machines to the Gateway city with his proposed $15-million Nipissing Raceway in the city's east end.

The anticipation of thundering hoofs returning to North Bay is enough to send a tingle up Fudge's spine as he remembers his childhood days in the 1960s, peddling his bike down the Ottawa highway to watch the pacers at Sonny Dale Raceway.

But, like dozens of other farm-based tracks throughout Ontario, interest dwindled and Sonny Dale closed in the early 1970s.

With the sport's popularity back on the rise, bolstered by simulcast broadcasts and slot machines, Fudge felt the timing was right to revive the idea and enlisted some Toronto business partners - his son-in-law Richard Ciano, Mitch Wexler and C.S. Leung - to invest in the private development, which could be as high as $20 million if the province lifts its moratorium on gambling expansion.

The McGuinty government is expected to render a decision in "several weeks," says Fudge, who is tentatively targetting April 2006 as the first day of racing.

The group has purchased 102 acres of industrially zoned undeveloped bush lots just minutes from Highway 11 and the city's hotel strip. They are in the process of preparing a rezoning application to the city this fall, which will include slot machines.

Since last spring, news of a possible North Bay track has been making the rounds on the racing simulcast network as far south as Georgia, says Fudge.

He believes a North Bay track will serve as a great companion piece to Sudbury Downs - 120 kilometres to the west - to better link the North to the southern Ontario racing circuit.

The development calls for a 5/8-mile track, a 500-seat indoor grandstand, 144-seat restaurant, barns for 200 horses and a 640-car parking lot.

About 250 jobs would be created on site, ranging from entry-level horse groomers, marketing positions, restaurant service sector jobs, right up to senior track management.

A slot machine component could boost the operation's total employment to 400.

Many more downstream spinoffs would be realized for area breeders, those in the feed business and related jobs tailored to the agricultural sector in outlying communities, he says.

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Fudge says his group's efforts already have the support of the Ontario Harness Racing Association, as well as the Northern Horsemen's Association in Sudbury, and, so far the local reaction from the business community has been "very positive," including city council's endorsement last April.

"No one has come to me and said this is a terrible business idea," says Fudge, who also works as a consultant in the aggregate and industrial minerals industries.

But he has heard some rumblings in the community there may be some opposition this fall from anti-gambling advocates.

Fudge says the addition of slots will mean more races, bigger purses, better horses from the circuit, and it should strengthen jobs within the entire operation. In Ontario, horse racing has become a full partner in the gaming industry. Fifteen of the province's tracks, including Sudbury Downs, have slot machines. The money has transformed racing in Ontario into a $1.3-billion industry.

In an attempt to sway some opinion, his group commissioned a social impact assessment conducted by Toronto's Milestone Strategy Management Consultants.

The study, which Fudge intends to post on his Web site (www.nipissingentertainment.com), indicates the racetrack/slot operations will have a low negative effect in the community.

The slot operation would generate about $650,000 in net revenues to be annually earmarked for local social support agencies.

Furthermore, the city would receive about $1.6 million annually in slot revenues and take in about $250,000 in property tax assessment. Fudge applied to the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) in May for a licence to operate the track for 50 race days initially. Their application is now in the due diligence phase. Eventually, he hopes the facility will operate year-round like other Ontario tracks.

Once the ORC makes its decision, the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency, which licenses and supervises wagering at racetracks, will weigh-in, plus approvals will be needed from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. and the city's building department.

Jean Larocque of Larocque Elder Architects has prepared a conceptual drawing and Fudge says many local contractors have expressed an interest, but, with the regulatory process still underway, he could put no timelines on when the project will be put to tender.

By IAN ROSS

Northern Ontario Business
COPYRIGHT 2004 Laurentian Business Publishing, Inc.
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Title Annotation:NORTH BAY
Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:771
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