City: Greyhound racing can go

Council will ask legislators to end the requirement for dog racing at Mystique.

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Posted: Friday, December 6, 2013 12:00 am

For the first time, City Council members will formally ask state legislators to remove the greyhound dog racing requirement from Mystique Casino.

The request is included in the council's legislative priorities packet approved Monday night. The packet includes background information about several issues deemed important to continued success in Dubuque, as well as the city's position on any possible future action.

When greyhound racing came to Dubuque in 1985 after a referendum, it provided much-needed relief for a community mired in an economic crisis of historic proportions.

But in the ensuing 28 years, the industry fell into a "death spiral," according to city officials, turning the once lucrative track into a financial anchor. The Dubuque Racing Association spent about $4.5 million last year to subsidize racing. The DRA has diverted more than $55 million from charitable organizations and the city's capital projects fund over the past three decades.

"The reason for (creating the dog track), at the time, was that would be a way to bring added income into the community and the surrounding communities," council member Joyce Connors said. "If all these years later, there's something that's taking a bite out of that, then yes, that's a concern."

Officials admit that without greyhound racing, Mystique Casino would not exist. The first slot machines were added to the facility with the explicit purpose of enhancing racing purses.

But interest has waned in the sport since the early 1990s. Only two tracks remain in Iowa -- the other is in Council Bluffs -- and 21 tracks are still operational nationwide.

Net income at the Dubuque park peaked at $2,738,093 in 1988, but dipped into the red in 1992 and never recovered. Casino revenue has supported the industry since.

Jesus Aviles, Mystique Casino president and CEO, said the subsidy keeps the purses viable even without a large amount of bets placed.

"The greyhound activity purse is subsidized by an imposed supplement, and it's very costly," Aviles said. "It has been losing money even with the supplement we provide."

A gag order included in a contract with greyhound kennels prevented Aviles and DRA board members from lobbying against the industry. But the restriction has lapsed, Aviles said, leaving him free to speak out.

Kennel operator Brad Boeckenstedt, of Bellevue, Iowa, said eliminating the requirement for a racing subsidy would have wide-reaching consequences. Iowa is home to more than 60 greyhound farms, and the industry has created more than 1,000 jobs in the state.

"Our family is greatly invested in our community and in the greyhound business," Boeckenstedt said. "This is something when this was brought about, they couldn't get slot machines without greyhound racing. It's kind of sad that they want to get rid of us now that they have slots."

One of the biggest changes since greyhound racing's heyday is decreased promotion of the sport and amenities for spectators, according to Boeckenstedt.

"I don't think they promote it like they used to do in the '80s," he said. "My personal feeling is we could do a better job of promoting it."

The lack of interest in the sport might have been overstated.

"In matinee races, like on Wednesdays, there's more people in dog racing places than in the casino," Boeckenstedt said.

According to state Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, Harrah's Casino in Council Bluffs, which hosts the only other remaining greyhound track in the state, has been lobbying against the racing requirement for years. A request from Dubuque is slightly different, she said, as Mystique Casino is overseen by a not-for-profit entity that props up community organizations.

"If we told the two dog tracks left, 'You don't have to race anymore,' in Dubuque at least, it means that $4.5 million could then be distributed to charities, to city government, all of those things," Jochum said.

It's unclear when or if eliminating the requirement will be considered again, but Jochum said she hopes it is.

"It's just an entertainment venue that the public has seemed to lose interest in," she said. "If it was any other kind of business, they would have shut themselves of (it) a long time ago."

Any sort of move eliminating the racing requirement would include provisions to protect greyhounds and employees working at the tracks, Jochum said. Aviles said he'd like to negotiate a "soft landing" with the casino's racing partners should the split occur.

The time for eliminating the mandate is right, according to Carey Theil, executive director of Grey2K USA. The national not-for-profit organization advocates for the elimination of greyhound racing everywhere.

"It's clear that the only ones who are benefiting from the state dog racing mandate are greyhound breeders, many of whom live out of state," Theil said. "For them, the dog racing mandate has become a multimillion-dollar subsidy for an activity that doesn't have much interest."

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