An effort to reopen The Woodlands race track in Wyandotte County as a venue for horse racing and slot machines has sparked vehement opposition from supporters of nearby Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway.
In a full-page ad in Sunday’s Kansas City Star, a group calling itself Protect the Partnership lambasted a proposed state tax change to reopen The Woodlands, owned by Las Vegas billionaire businessman Phil Ruffin.
The group, which said it was a coalition of local business and civic leaders, asserted that a tax change for The Woodlands could breach contracts with current casino operators in the state.
Ruffin, a Las Vegas casino owner formerly of Wichita, bought The Woodlands last summer. He also owns tracks in Wichita and Frontenac, Kan.
To reopen, The Woodlands would need zoning approval, which it will seek in March, and it wants a change in state law that would allow it to keep more of its revenue.
Mike Taylor, spokesman for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., said the Unified Government is receptive to The Woodlands’ reopening if it can present an overall development plan that benefits the county.
“We’re in negotiations and talking with them,” he said. “So far they haven’t made a lot of commitments. What we don’t want is for them to open a track for 60 days and then to have a giant slot parlor open for 365 days a year that steals revenue from Hollywood Casino.”
Many Wyandotte County residents have said they want to see The Woodlands reopen, Taylor said.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, said he’s long been a proponent of reopening The Woodlands because his constituents have told him they favor it, he said.
He shepherded a bill that passed the Senate but not the House in 2015 that would lower the tax on slot machines at The Woodlands to make it the same as slot machines at casinos, Fitzgerald said. A House bill was introduced a few weeks ago.
“The basis of their concern,” he said about Hollywood Casino supporters, “is that it will reduce the traffic over at Hollywood Casino.”
To them it looks like harmful competition, Fitzgerald said.
“I think they’re wrong,” he said. “I think it’s going to help them. I think it will draw more people to the area.”
Ruffin bought The Woodlands about two months after the Senate bill passed.
Protect the Partnership called proposed changes to the 2007 Kansas Expanded Lottery Act a “massive tax break” that could cost jobs at Hollywood Casino and could result in millions in lost state and local gaming tax revenues.
The 2007 law allowed for four casinos in separate “casino zones” and for horse and greyhound tracks to offer slot machines.
The group argued on its website, protectthepartnership.org, that track operators were to be awarded licenses for slots outright, but casino developers competed for the four casino licenses and were required to invest a minimum of $250 million in their developments.
A partnership called Kansas Entertainment invested more than $300 million to open Hollywood Casino in 2012, the group said. Jeff Boerger of Kansas Entertainment couldn’t be reached for comment.
Hollywood Casino, which joined four casinos on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro area, has boosted its revenue each year it has been open, and at least 85 percent of that revenue comes from slot machines. The 7th Street Casino in Kansas City, Kan., is a tribal-run slots parlor.
The Woodlands opened in 1989 with greyhound racing and added horses the following year. It has been closed since 2008.
A spokesman for Ruffin couldn’t be reached Sunday, but Ruffin told The Star last year that he wanted to reopen The Woodlands as a hybrid “racino” and that he couldn’t unless the Legislature lowered the tax rates. Without that, the venue wouldn’t be profitable, he said.
Ruffin said that even if an agreement can’t be reached, his purchase gave him about 400 acres. Nearby are the Legends mall, Schlitterbahn water park and Sporting KC’s stadium, Children’s Mercy Park.
“If slots don’t go through, it’s still a viable piece of ground,” Ruffin said. “We buy ground all the time. It’s a business we know.”