Unified Government approves special use permit for the Woodlands, but long road remains ahead for horse racing track

Who is afraid of some horse racing in Wyandotte County?

Not too many people, it turns out. A packed crowd at a Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas Commission meeting on Thursday testified mostly in favor of re-opening the Woodlands, the horse and dog racing track in the western edge of the county that closed in 2008.

The UG Commission, after hearing a couple hours of testimony and after debating the issue amongst themselves, voted unanimously to approve a Las Vegas developer’s request for a special use permit at the Woodlands site.

But don’t count on placing bets on horses any time soon. Getting the special use permit is one of the earliest steps in the process for Phil Ruffin, the Las Vegas development impresario who bought the Woodlands property for about $15 million. Ruffin is also counting on enabling legislation passing in Topeka before he re-opens the Woodlands, which could be a sucker bet given the folks running the show at the Kansas statehouse.

And don’t count on wagering on greyhounds, ever. Of the five people who testified against the Woodlands, two did so only to make sure that no dog racing occurs. Greyhound racing, they say, leads to nasty injuries and unjust treatment of the dogs.

Scott Beeler, a Lathrop & Gage attorney who represents Ruffin, committed to no dog racing.

But Beeler wants to put 750 electronic gaming machines to go along with live horse racing into what he says will be a sleekly designed “race-ino,” as they’re called. Beeler told the UG Commission that his client is committing to a minimum $70 million investment into the Woodlands, a price tag that includes the cost of buying the property. After the meeting, Beeler told The Pitch that the project would likely be an even bigger investment than $70 million.

Ruffin’s proposal drew opposition from representatives of Hollywood Casino, a fancy gaming facility in its own right located a few miles south of the Woodlands. Hollywood Casino probably doesn’t want the competition, but an attorney representing the casino showed up to protest technical aspects of Ruffin’s plan.

Korb Maxwell, a Polsinelli attorney with a flair for the dramatic, said Ruffin “gerrymandered” the boundaries of his proposal in order to keep nearby property owners from filing a protest petition against the development. Beeler brushed off Maxwell’s allegations.

For a while on Thursday, the fate of the Woodlands seemed a little unclear. UG Commissioners grilled Beeler on a number of points, handling the real estate attorney in a way that’s unusual for development-starved local governments in this metro area. Commissioner Hal Walker wanted to know if Beeler would commit to not appealing his property taxes like most of the big commercial property owners in western Wyandotte County do every year (Beeler declined that commitment).

UG Mayor Mark Holland wondered whether the UG should fetch an independent study of the Woodlands’ economic impact on the surrounding area. There is a study that amplifies the economic effects of reviving the Woodlands, but it was paid for by the gaming industry. In the end, no study was commissioned, and the UG Commission granted the special use permit.

In other UG news from Thursday night, Holland gave a sermon of sorts about the state of fire safety in Kansas City, Kansas. As the UG and its fire safety union continue to argue over a new labor agreement, the UG and the KCK Fire Department have studied how to allocate resources for fire protection.

Two key points stood out from the discussion: Holland summoned the practice of trading shifts, which The Pitch has covered here and here. KCKFD chief John Paul Jones disputed Holland’s contention that KCKFD employees trade shifts to avoid using paid sick or vacation time, leading to big end-of-year payouts for fire employees. While Holland has an audit to support his view, Jones said it just doesn’t exist.

Holland also said that UG has about three to four times the fire personnel that similarly sized Independence and Olathe employs. Jones countered that Olathe is a bad comparison because that city’s fire department doesn’t include emergency medical services like KCKFD does.

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