KCK commission advances a permit request to reopen The Woodlands

Horse racing stopped at The Woodlands in 2008, but the grass is still being mowed in 2016.
Horse racing stopped at The Woodlands in 2008, but the grass is still being mowed in 2016.

A first-step request for reopening The Woodlands as a racetrack, electronic gaming venue and entertainment facility was recommended for approval with multiple conditions late Monday night.

The Planning Commission in Kansas City, Kan., heard extensive public testimony — for and against — on a special use permit application requested by Ruffin Woodlands LLC, a company headed by casino owner and real estate developer Phil Ruffin.

Commissioners voted 8-2 to send the request for further consideration April 28 by the Unified Government Commission. More than a dozen stipulations about eventual project details were attached to the approval.

Phil Ruffin, a billionaire who owns other racetracks or casinos in Kansas and Nevada, proposes to invest $70 million in a “racino” at the Wyandotte County racetrack, which has been closed since 2008.

The plan calls for a horse racing, electronic gaming and entertainment facility on 317 acres of a 400-acre site already owned by Ruffin at 9700 Leavenworth Road.

In addition to the county special use permit for a racetrack — which had lapsed for the site after The Woodlands closed — Ruffin Woodlands seeks a change in Kansas gaming statutes that would reduce the percentage of electronic gaming revenues that racetrack casinos owe the state to the same percentage as currently licensed casinos.

Ruffin bought The Woodlands in 2015 from Howard Grace for an undisclosed price.

Ruffin Companies executive vice president William Shea, as well as Ruffin’s son, Phil Ruffin Jr., attended the hearing but did not speak.

Ruffin’s plan has been fought by Protect the Partnership, a group that supports the nearby Hollywood Casino, the gaming facility attached to Kansas Speedway. Hollywood advocates said Ruffin should be held to the same lengthy and detailed public planning process that Hollywood had before its gaming license was approved by the state.

Valerie Mussett, chairwoman of the Kansas City Kansas Chamber of Commerce, was among people testifying against the Ruffin petition, partly on the grounds that a detailed development hadn’t been submitted. She said the chamber didn’t want anything to jeopardize the jobs and revenues at the Hollywood Casino.

Protect the Partnership members also have argued that reintroducing electronic gaming under the Ruffin proposal at The Woodlands could threaten existing operating contracts with Hollywood Casino and hurt tax revenues in Wyandotte County.

Hollywood Casino is one of four “lottery gaming facilities” currently licensed to operate in Kansas. In 2009, International Speedway Corp. and Penn National Gaming received rights to build and operate a casino at Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County. That partnership opened the casino in 2012.

Unified Government planning staff had recommended approval of the Ruffin Woodlands special use permit, citing potential economic development and taxing benefits to the county, with the understanding that multiple stipulations — such as not holding greyhound races and installing traffic signals at the site entrance — be agreed to by Ruffin in subsequent permitting processes.

R. Scott Beeler, a Lathrop & Gage attorney representing Ruffin Woodlands, said the site now generates less than $200,000 in property taxes, but that would jump to about $1.8 million annually if the facility was rebuilt and reopened as proposed.

Also, “unlike Hollywood Casino, we are asking for no public incentives, no tax dollars for Ruffin Woodlands,” Beeler said. “This will be totally privately built.”

Spokesmen for Hollywood Casino later disputed Beeler’s comment about the casino receiving public assistance. They said the casino land was removed from the state STAR bonds package that assisted its adjacent property development.

Several neighbors said they wanted to see The Woodlands reopen to create more tax revenues that could be directed to schools in Wyandotte County.

Mark Evans, a past president of the Kansas Thoroughbred Association, said he has raced horses around the United States and Canada but “never at a track five minutes from my house.” He urged commissioners to consider the job creation possibility of returning horse racing to Kansas.

Ruffin owns two other Kansas racetracks, Wichita Greyhound and Camptown Racing near Pittsburg. Like The Woodlands, both are closed.

Ruffin plans to use an existing state casino law that allows Kansas racetracks, in the aggregate, to have up to 2,800 electronic gaming machines. Ruffin Woodlands proposes 750 machines.

Ruffin also seeks a statutory change in Kansas gaming rules that would reduce the percentage of electronic gaming revenues that racetrack-based machines are required to pay the state. The law now requires racetracks to pay 40 percent of electronic gaming revenue, compared with 22 percent required of the state’s existing casinos, such as Hollywood Casino.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford