By James Fink
The prospect of cross-border development opportunities, coupled with a neighboring auto racing track, piqued the interest of Carl Paladino and his frequent investment partners to purchase a 358-acre Fort Erie parcel, whose anchor tenant is the historic Fort Erie Race Track.
The deal, which was completed today, offers stability for the 117-year-old thoroughbred racing track, but also opens the door for a new wave of private sector-fueled development along the Queen Elizabeth Way and what many consider the psychological center of Fort Erie.
“This is something we’ve been hoping for,” said Fort Erie Mayor Douglas Martin.
Martin and his economic development chief, Jim Thibert, have been working with Paladino and his business partners, Joseph Mosey and Joel Castle, along with Canadian attorney David Kompson since late last year. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The land, including the track, had been owned by Nordic Gaming Corp., a Tel Aviv-based real estate consortium. Nordic Gaming leased the track operations to the not-for-profit Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, which has run the facility for five years. At the same time, Nordic Gaming also put a “for sale” sign on all 358 acres. The track occupies approximately 168 of those acres.
Ownership uncertainty, together with Torontocentric decisions that favored Woodbine Race Track, cast a heavy cloud over the Fort Erie track. Provincial funding was slashed, and slot machines were pulled from the track. The end result was that Fort Eriewas allocated a 37-date live racing schedule this year, compared with the 74-date season it had typically run in the recent past.
Martin says the Paladino deal will resonant in Toronto’s Queen’s Park, the seat of the provincial government.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It opens the door for a new wave of potential.”
Paladino said he and his partners are working on a number of development scenarios for the land, all of which include keeping the track open and operating. A hint of what the future may hold is expected to be discussed at a Tuesday afternoon press conference Paladino and Fort Erie officials scheduled.
“What we are thinking about is something that will be beneficial to both Buffalo and Fort Erie,” Paladino said. “Yes, it will stabilize Fort Erie’s racing industry.”
The track is one of the largest employers in Fort Erie, with several hundred workers and a projected $27 million annual economic impact.
The deal comes at a time when Fort Erie is seeing several other developments take hold, including a new marina complex along the Niagara River and the $400 million Jeff Gordon-endorsed speedway that’s under construction and expected to open by 2017.
“We saw what was coming to Fort Erie,” Paladino said.
In its role as a border community, Fort Erie has more than 10,000 Buffalo area residents who own property in such hamlets as Waverly Beach, Rose Hill, Crystal Beach and Point Abino.
Martin said he is glad to see the track and surrounding land being shifted from long-distance ownership to a local group.
“Carl and his investors understand the dynamics of the track and what it means to Fort Erie,” Martin said.
It also helps that the Canadian Motor Speedway will be one of Paladino’s new neighbors.
“Having two major attraction in what is virtually the same area bodes well for the town,” Martin said.