Alberta Downs set for growth

It will be several months before the horses return to Alberta Downs for the 2014 racing season. But changes are already afoot.

It will be several months before the horses return to Alberta Downs for the 2014 racing season. But changes are already afoot.

Owner Bob Allen is hoping to develop a 12-hole executive golf course on land adjacent to the track south of Lacombe. And he’s also seeking to set up off-track betting sites throughout Central Alberta.

The golf course proposal calls for a 3,400-yard, par-45 layout on the east and northwest sides of Alberta Downs’ racing area.

“I can utilize my grandstand as a clubhouse,” he said, adding that the site has ample parking and easy access from Hwy 2.

There’s not enough room for 18 holes, acknowledged Allen, and he doesn’t want to build a par-3 course. However, he thinks his proposal would meet the needs of people who don’t have the time or energy to play a full round of golf.

“What I was trying to do is create a shorter course for older people,” he said, adding that such a course should appeal to people of all ages.

If all goes well, said Allen, construction could start as early as this spring and the course be ready for use by fall. However, development approval from Lacombe County is required.

Dale Freitag, the county’s manager of planning services, said the land is zoned for highway commercial use. That could include a golf course, if the county’s municipal planning commission allows it as a discretionary use.

“There’s no formal proposal,” said Freitag of Allen’s plans. “We’ve had preliminary discussions about whether or not it’s something that could be considered there.”

The approval process would require Allen to satisfy the county that his project would not adversely affect the environment, and that issues like traffic and parking would be addressed.

This could prove an impediment for Allen, who doesn’t want to incur the cost and take the time for such steps as an environmental assessment — which he said were preformed when he developed Alberta Downs five years ago.

“Around the first of the year, I’ll probably go back in and do some more talking,” he said of his dealings with the county.

Allen is also working to develop a network of off-track betting facilities throughout the region.

“I’ve got quite a few lined up at Rimbey, Ponoka, Stettler, Rocky Mountain House, Innisfail,” he said. “Then I’ve got three in Red Deer that want to go.”

In addition to obvious venues like sports bars and casinos, Allen off-track betting sites could be set up in non-traditional locations like corner stores. They would operate year-round, allowing people to watch and bet on horse races in North America and as far away as Australia and Hong Kong, he said.

Alberta race tracks, including Alberta Downs, would participate during their racing season.

Allen wants to make the sites as entertaining as possible. He’s even contemplating million-dollar prizes to anyone who picks 10 consecutive winners.

Such measures, he said, are necessary to breathe new life into an industry that’s in decline.

In this regard, Allen welcomed news last week that a $24-million racetrack and casino is planned for just north of Calgary. A joint project of the United Horsemen of Alberta and Century Casinos, it would feature a 0.7-mile track and 550 gaming machines.

The project would bring badly-needed money into the horse-racing industry, and renew interest in the sport, said Allen.

“It won’t hurt me at all,” he said, adding that Alberta Downs is positioned to offer racing that would be complementary to that available at the Calgary and Edmonton tracks.

“My plan is to switch to maybe less days and race every Sunday and put on a real show,” he said, explaining that he could stage both thoroughbred and harness racing.

“I’ve got a turf track and a mile track that nobody else has got.”

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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