Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dust-up over Assiniboia Downs raises alarming questions

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BRANDON -- After having poured almost $200 million into Assiniboia Downs over the past two decades, Manitoba's taxpayers have been presented with a stark choice -- continue to fork over almost $10 million annually, or face the prospect of the property being sold to a group the provincial government fears is intent on building an aboriginal-owned casino on the property.

The Manitoba Jockey Club, the corporation that owns and operates the Downs, has applied to the Court of Queen's Bench for an order directing the Selinger government to continue the funding agreements the club has with the province and the Manitoba Lotteries Corporation until new arrangements can be finalized. Those agreements provide the jockey club with $9.5 million annually.

According to documents filed in court by the club, Finance Minister Stan Struthers told club officials in February the funding would be cut by at least $5 million in this year's provincial budget, and the government planned to eventually remove the 140 VLTs now at the track.

The jockey club argues such measures would put the club in dire financial straits, and wants the court to prevent the province from taking them. The application will be heard in a Winnipeg courtroom on April 26.

Asking a judge to dictate budget policy to the provincial government is a puzzling and unlikely strategy in what is becoming an increasingly puzzling situation.

Other court documents the jockey club filed indicate the club has entered into a partnership arrangement with Peguis First Nation to construct a hotel and conference centre on the Downs property. The same documents indicate Struthers opposes the idea because he views it as a part of a scheme to circumvent provincial gaming policy and eventually have a First Nations-owned casino at the Downs.

If a casino at the Downs is the jockey club's objective, it has a familiar ring to it.

Glenn Hudson is the chief of Peguis First Nation. He is also the newly appointed chairman of Tribal Councils Investment Group, the organization that has partnered with the City of Brandon to try to bring a First Nations casino to the Wheat City. Last November, the Brandon Sun reported the investment group had entered into an agreement to lease a large property on the northern edge of Brandon as the site for a casino.

If Hudson is intent on expanding First Nations gaming into Manitoba's urban markets, he is going about it the right way. He has indirectly tied up the two of the most viable potential casino locations in the province.

Another curious aspect of this situation involves the lawyer the jockey club retained for its litigation against the province. Rather than hiring a Manitoba lawyer, the club is represented by Calgary lawyer Jeff Rath. He is currently representing Peguis First Nation in several legal disputes, including the Kapyong Barracks litigation against the federal government.

Why is the lawyer for Peguis also representing the jockey club? What are the terms of the agreements the club entered into with Peguis? How large is the Peguis stake in the Downs at present? What impact could a Peguis-MJC partnership have on the province's policy regarding casinos and on Brandon's hopes for a casino?

Most importantly, what impact does this litigation and the Peguis-MJC partnership have on the interests of Manitoba's taxpayers?

Over the past two decades, the province has sunk almost $200 million into the Downs. The fact that jockey club officials are openly threatening to sell the 53-hectare Downs property, which they value at $70 million, to Peguis if the province doesn't agree to maintain annual funding of almost $10 million should alarm us all. In addition to displaying an exasperating sense of entitlement on the part of the jockey club, it implies the province is powerless to stop such a transaction.

Was all that public money given to the jockey club without any government control over the future sale of the property, without any protection ensuring repayment if the property was sold? Were millions of dollars that could have been invested in hospitals, schools and reducing Manitobans' tax burdens wasted on the ponies?

Of all the questions that remain to be answered in this situation, those are the questions that most urgently require a response.

Deveryn Ross is a political

commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 A15

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