Oct. 28—Owensboro city leaders were optimistic Wednesday that the planned simulcast wagering and historic horse racing gaming venue planned for Towne Square Mall will be good for the future of the mall and an economic benefit to the city.
Ellis Entertainment received state approval Tuesday for the planned venue on the mall property. The city had been in talks with Ellis Entertainment officials about the possibility, Owensboro Mayor Tom Watson said.
"They have basically been communicating with the city manager, and we were surprised when the announcement came out yesterday," Watson said. The planned venue "is another piece of the economic puzzle" for the city, Watson said.
"I think anything that can help out the mall and start the refurbishing of it is positive," Watson said. "We welcome them. We are glad to have them. I think it's a good location for them."
City Manager Nate Pagan said officials have discussed giving Ellis Entertainment a 50% rebate on all occupation taxes collected from its employees for five years.
"I think there is a consensus to do it," but commissioners will have to vote on the proposal in an upcoming meeting, Pagan said. "We didn't want to get ahead of the company and approve something prior to the announcement."
A bill signed into law by Gov. Andy Beshear earlier this year allows horse tracks to have facilities for simulcasting races and for historical racing gaming within a 60-mile radius of the track.
The law does not give the city any authority over the project, Pagan said. Ellis Park received the license from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
"There's nothing the city has to do to approve the project, and there's nothing we can do to prevent it," Pagan said. "It's purely a state issue."
City Commissioner Bob Glenn said the venue helps the city while also supporting the state's horse industry. Glenn said he is in favor of the occupational tax break for Ellis Entertainment.
"I think its a good idea, because they are going to bring 100 permanent jobs to the community," he said. "We know horse racing is a part of Kentucky's heritage, and our tracks are a reflection of that."
The venue will support Ellis Park, which has undergone renovations and upgrades under Ellis Entertainment, Glenn said. Ellis is owned by Laguna Development Corporation of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"The organization from New Mexico has a long-term plan to renovate and remodel Ellis Park and improve the quality of the experience for the fans, the horse owners and the horses," Glenn said.
City Commissioner Larry Maglinger said he was in support of granting the company a rebate on part of its occupational taxes.
"I think anytime someone comes in and spends $17 million, we are interested (in creating) incentives for them, and 100 jobs, too," Maglinger said. "A lot of people bring projects in, but it's all about the jobs."
In addition to simulcasting races, the venue will include historical racing machines, which are like slot machines, with a person wagering on a randomly selected race that has already been run.
City Commissioner Mark Castlen said gambling is already widely available to people.
"My thoughts are people are going to be able to gamble.; they can do it on their phones," Castlen said. "We have to do something to support our horse industry. I'm hoping this is something that will not only help our racing industry, but our mall. It has been sitting empty for years.
"I know a lot of people are going to be against the gambling ... We all have our choices to make, and if people want to gamble, all they have to do is pick up their phones ... I look for it mainly to be entertainment for people who come from out of town."
City Commissioner Jeff Sanford said the planned venue could help the entire mall area.
"I think it's a good addition to south Frederica," Sanford said. "That's a pretty substantial investment in the mall. There's not much there now. It helps south Frederica, which needs investment. And this is a big investment."
Sanford said an investment in Towne Square Mall could lead to other businesses moving into the space. The city's investment in downtown and the convention center, and in entertainment facilities like the Edge Ice Center, have made Owensboro attractive to companies like Ellis Entertainment, Sanford said.
"When they see the amenities for a town this size, it impressed them," Sanford said. "We are not sitting here doing nothing. We are on the move, and I think they wanted to be a part of that."
Daviess Judge-Executive Al Mattingly said county government had no role in the discussions with Ellis Entertainment. The announcement, he said, is good for entire county.
"Anything that creates jobs for our community has got to be good, hopefully, in the long run," Mattingly said.
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, email@example.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse