GRANTS PASS, Ore. – The Flying Lark and Grants Pass Downs are in limbo as they wait for a decision from the Oregon Gaming Commission on whether or not the Flying Lark can install historic racing machines (HRM).
The final touches are going in at the Flying Lark right now, crews are working every day to make sure its ready to open by March 1st but if the commission doesn’t give its approval, then opening day can’t happen.
A letter, signed by a total of six Oregon tribes, is asking for a pause on any “new expansions or approvals” of gaming from the state, “until a thorough study is completed and recommendations made to the legislature.” The tribes state that gaming technology has changed and the current state laws regarding HRM’s no longer reflects or considers those changes. The tribes claim the machines are essentially slot machines, which according to Oregon law are only allowed in casinos.
Originally the Oregon Gambling Commission was scheduled to make a decision on the HRM’s installment in the Flying Lark back in October but that decision has now been delayed twice, something that was not expected from those at the Flying Lark and Grants Pass Downs.
“October was no big deal, November we thought we’d get the first thing through then they postponed the meeting in December and then the feedback we’re getting from Salem is that somebody says ‘don’t let this through’ and we just don’t know why or how; that’s what the surprise was,” explained Flying Lark President, Mike Thiessen.
The delay is leaving the Flying Lark and all of its employees in limbo. Travis Boersma, who has spent tens of millions funding the construction of the Flying Lark and recent renovation of Grants Pass Downs, says he can pay employees through the end of February but after that, if there’s no decision, it will be the end of the Flying Lark and Grants Pass Downs and potentially the end of horse racing in southern Oregon and the entire state.
“We have a number of veterans that have come back from serving our country in Afghanistan, we have some single mothers that are looking for the assurance of this job; one of them is going to nursing school during the day, she wanted to work the evening shift here so that her mom could watch her son so she could finish nursing school and this gave her maximum flexibility. It’s unbelievably hard to tell them that even though we hired them they may not have a job based on the state’s lack of action,” said Thiessen.
“We do lose money on live racing,” said Chief Racing Officer at Grants Pass Downs, Randy Evers, “the Flying Lark was put in to bring revenue so horse racing could survive, that was passed by the legislature in 2013. If Grants Pass Downs is not allowed to operate because we don’t have Flying Lark revenues, my strong assumption is that the fairs will be done within a year or two so we will have no live racing in Oregon. Owners and trainers just won’t keep horses to run at a few fair meets, if we can’t have a commercial meet.”
The end of horse racing would have a negative ripple effect on the community.
“People don’t realize how much economics horse racing brings to a community but when our horsemen and horsewomen are here, they’re buying hay and oats, they’re buying gas and diesel, they’re buying groceries at the grocery store,” says Evers.
More than 200 employees are banking on employment from the Flying Lark and Grants Pass Downs.
“Josephine County has, at last report, about 6% unemployment rate, that’s one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. This is a great job creator,” says Thiessen.
One of those more than 200 employees is mother of five, Jessica Reyes, who sent a letter to Governor Brown’s office asking for attention on the matter and a decision from the Oregon Gaming Commission. For Reyes, a job at the Flying Lark is more than a paycheck.
“It means us getting on our feet, getting a house, a car that fits us all,” says Reyes, “Coming here at the Lark and the pay and benefits they have here, I feel like that’s something I can give my kids; a better life.”
Thiessen says until recently there was no concern or indication that the machines would not be allowed.
“That’s the irony of the whole thing; this was passed in 2013, was re-passed in 2014, it happened in Portland Meadows, we passed a piece of legislation in this last legislative session – Senate Bill 165 – that modernized some of the payouts, which was also signed by the governor and it specifically said ‘revenue from historic horse racing’ and now its ‘oh we don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t know what we’re doing’ so a surprise is an understatement,” says Thiessen.
According to current Oregon law, HRM’s do not go against gambling statues designed to protect casinos ran by Native American tribes in the state.
NewsWatch 12 reached out to the Oregon Gaming Commission to get an idea of when they might have a decision for the Flying Lark, as of tonight’s evening broadcast the commission has not returned our multiple messages.