City fears effects of dog-racing ban's passage

By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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Predictions in recent years regarding the future of Wonderland Greyhound Park have not centered on if - but when - it will close if slot machines or casino games are not added to the attractions.

But on Tuesday, a question seeking to ban dog racing in the state may cement the struggling track's expiration date, as well as Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park's, to Jan. 1, 2010.

The Committee to Protect Dogs, sponsors of the ballot petition, wants to phase out the state's 70-year dog-racing industry, arguing that it is cruel and inhumane.

Opponents, including officials from both state tracks, argue that the greyhounds are treated with care, that the industry is highly regulated, and that the petition would eliminate hundreds of jobs.

A recent 7News/Suffolk University poll of 400 registered voters indicated that 44 percent favored the ban and 43 percent opposed it.

Several Revere officials expressed surprise at the close poll results, as well as concern over what a ban would mean to the city.

A ban "would harm Revere because people who live in Revere who work there would lose their jobs," said Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino.

Between Wonderland and Suffolk Downs, which straddles parts of Revere and East Boston, Revere gets under $400,000 annually in pari-mutuel wagering revenue, Ambrosino said. If the ban passes, the city would lose Wonderland's portion, which is about half.

Even as the track struggles to compete with offshore gaming, out-of-state casinos, and scratch tickets, Ron Wohlen, assistant general manager and simulcast director at Wonderland, said it is still a significant contributor of revenue for the state and Revere. Last year, Wonderland paid part-time and full-time employees a total of $4.4 million in salaries. Its 2007 real estate taxes, which the track just paid last week, totaled $345,000.

Although petition sponsors centered their argument on the well-being of the dogs, they were also thinking about the track workers who would be displaced, said Brian Adams, spokesman for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell, a lead sponsor of the question.

"That's why there's been a phase-out period of 14 months . . . so people could have a soft landing," Adams said. "When it passes, we are advocating for a bill for money to be allocated to support the workers who have been displaced."

Adams said sponsors were told they could not attach money allocation instructions to a ballot question, and that's why it's not spelled out there.

"It is a question of trust, but when the MSPCA is involved, we stick to our word and work with the Legislature and work with the public constantly," Adams said of the allocation bill that would be proposed. "When we say the money can be spent for retraining, the money could also be used as a severance package if someone is toward or beyond their retirement age."

Track officials have reacted with skepticism to such reassurances.

"That's a smokescreen, that they'll take care of everybody," Wohlen said.

Wonderland offers 100 days of live racing, April to September, but has simulcast year-round, Wohlen said. Crowds at the track can vary from 125 and 575.

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