After several months of apparent inaction on the development of new horse racing facilities for the Virgin Islands, stakeholders sat down with Gov. Albert Bryan to devise a way forward.
Bryan met Friday for a discussion on how to advance a 2016 economic development plan, passed by the 31st Legislature and signed by former Gov. Kenneth Mapp.
Discussions took place as one group of St. Thomas horse owners made public a recent complaint sent in writing to Government House about the slow pace of race track expansion and development.
When it was first promoted by Mapp in 2016, it was billed as a project designed to promote sports tourism in the Virgin Islands, with the added benefit of increased revenues through gaming and sports betting.
Government House Communications Director Richard Motta issued a detailed statement about the meeting with Bryan, V.I. Racing Commissioner Jay Watson, V.I. Horseman’s Association President Clinton Hendrington and members of the St. Croix Horsemen Association.
Bryan told those attending Friday’s meeting the next step was theirs, according to a news release from Government House.
“Governor Bryan stressed Friday that the most important issue for the administration was to ensure the project was moving in accordance with the parameters set forth by the agreement,” the statement said.
The agreement stipulates that the “effective date” of the contract is not until the grantee, VIGL fulfills a number of provisions, which include acquiring a racino license and, most significantly, having all the permits and licenses in place for the facility along with completing several other items,” Motta said.
Bryan’s spokesman also pointed out that the agreement also calls for a project management plan, which was due 30 days after the initial signing of the agreement in December 2016.
According to Motta’s statement, VIGL said they met with Mapp and presented a project management plan to him, but on Friday they said they could not produce an official letter of submittal or letter of approval accepting the plan.
VIGL official Jason Williams said Monday he attended the Friday meeting with the governor but declined further comment during a post meeting interview. An attorney representing the gaming group told Bryan they were willing to submit a project management plan within 30 days. Attorney Miles Plaskett also said VIGL would state what types of permits need to be obtained in order to activate the race track development deal.
The gaming entity’s role in the expansion plans is complicated by a Dec. 18, 2018, lawsuit brought by Southland Gaming, LLC. Southland is suing the USVI government in federal court over the terms of an exclusive franchise agreement to operate slot machines for the V.I. Lottery in the District of St. Thomas-St. John.
VIGL joined the lawsuit as a co-litigant.
The racino plan would allow for installation of non-V.I. Lottery sanctioned slots at Clinton Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas. Southland does not own or operate slots in the St. Croix district, where the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack would have its own racino operation.
Horse racing commissioner Watson said he came to the meeting Friday as an observer.
“The commission’s role is to regulate the racing industry. VIGL’s role is dealing with the permits,” he said. “The governor told VIGL, ‘We believe you are in breech because you haven’t produced the 30-day plan.”
Clarifying the matter of permits may be tricky, Watson said. Currently, only Randall “Doc” James Racetrack has a permit – one from Coastal Zone Management. Clinton-Phipps also had a CZM permit, he said, but it was appealed.
“Once the appeal happened, they had to stop all activity at Clinton-Phipps,” he said, adding that several other permits are also needed before the requirements are met.
Concerns being expressed from the St. Thomas-St. John district became public recently when members of the Nadir Horse Owners and Trainers Association wrote a letter to Bryan dated June 21. They expressed frustration, having seen three years pass without being able to stage the traditional Carnival horse races. The situation had become so dire, they said, that one horse owner sold his horse and decided to raise chickens instead.
They further complained that the starting gate from the St. Thomas track had been taken to Tortola and was no longer available for them to train local steeds.
A member of the group, former Sen. Arturo Watlington, Jr., said the Nadir group was not invited to the Friday talks.