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Doug's Diggings: Hard to believe dog track issue began 20 years ago

I happened to open a paper from January 1989 and was somewhat shocked to find that the community was heavily embroiled in the midst of the dog track controversy. I was shocked because I find it hard to believe that it was 20 years ago!

The top headline in the Jan. 26, 1989, edition of the Star-Observer read: Two dog track applications in; only one will get a license. In the Jan. 19 and 26 editions of 1989 there were no less than five dog-track related headlines on the front page!

Of course, the story actually starts back in 1988. My involvement, from a newspaper point of view, actually began in 1987. In the summer of 1987 my wife and I were invited to a Saturday afternoon event at Canterbury Downs in Shakopee, Minn., by local businessman Burt Nordstrand.

As we learned soon after later, Burt was hired by Fred Havenick, head honcho of Flagler dog tracks in Miami and Bonita Springs, Fla. It would be Nordstrand's job to be the local front man for the dog track effort. He stayed with the company until 1993, when he went back to devoting all his time to his gas station/convenience store business -- Hudson-based SSG.

At any rate, at Canterbury Downs that Saturday afternoon in 1987 were a variety of local business leaders who were entertained by Burt in a luxury suite. At that event, Burt came up to me and said, I'm going to have a huge announcement, but I can't tell you what it is yet -- It's going to be huge."

Wisconsin opened the door to pari-mutuel betting after voters approved it in April 1987. Shortly after the law changed, there were several track proposals for the Hudson area, including a horse track in Roberts.

The "one license" referred to in the Jan. 26, 1989, headline came down to two fairly reputable proposals. The first came from a man named John Sausen. He proposed a dog track in the area of the TA truck stop off Exit 4 on Interstate 94 in the town of Hudson. The plan garnered some support in the town and was plodding forward in 1988. Like all proposals, of course, there was plenty of opposition. The Jan. 19, 1989, edition showed a full slate of candidates running for supervisor posts in the town, including three dog track opponents.

Burt Nordstrand announced plans for a $25 million dog track in August 1988. The battle was on to see which contender, if any, would get a license. The opposition was fierce.

Sausen eventually scrapped his plan, but before the Hudson track was built, the final price came in closer to $40 million.

What Burt Nordstrand may not have anticipated was the battle that developed over the effort to gain approval for the track. Nearly every City Council meeting lasted for several hours, every meeting had Twin Cities television cameras covering it, nearly every meeting was done before a packed house, and there were lawsuits and threats of lawsuits in every corner.

In the Jan. 19, 1989, edition, the headline read: CCRD, individuals, YMCA file suit against city, track. CCRD stood for Citizens for Continued Responsible Development. Some of the opposition names mentioned in the story included Bruce Moffat, David Dueholm, Mark Erickson, Michael and Pamela Willman and James and Helen Comfort.

Part of the dog track excitement included a mayoral recall and several heated local elections.

Oddly enough, it seemed like the track battle lasted for years, but by June 1989, the state issued a license for St. Croix Meadows Greyhound Racing Park, and construction began shortly thereafter.

The Hudson track was the last of the five to open in Wisconsin -- the others opened in 1990; St. Croix Meadows opened with great fanfare in June 1991. Considered the fanciest of the five tracks in Wisconsin, it was a showpiece with fancy restaurants, clubhouse, spotless facilities and more.

Among the guests at the opening on June 20, 1991, was Gov. Tommy Thompson. The five opening performances that weekend drew 20,565 people. The track's high-water mark probably came on the July 4 weekend when the crowd numbered 33,038 for the weekend, and a July 4 matinee performance attracted 9,233 people.

Attendance, however, was already starting to dwindle as the summer of 1991 wore on. Later that fall, the idea of year-round races was scrapped and racing was suspended for the winter months -- the handwriting was beginning to appear on the wall.

The problem? Indian casinos. At about the same time St. Croix Meadows opened its doors, Indian casinos in the Twin Cities and northwestern Wisconsin were opening their doors.

People would apparently rather gamble on their own schedule instead of the schedule of a dog track. St. Croix Meadows officials were still fairly pleased with their first year of operation, but lost money.

Unfortunately for Fred Havenick, that first year was the high-water mark. Attendance fell dramatically in year two and continued to spiral downward until the track finally closed in 2001. The track never showed a profit.

In 1992 it became apparent that the future of the dog track was in jeopardy. Havenick came up with another plan -- he partnered with three Wisconsin Indian tribes (Lac Courte Oreilles, Red Cliff and Sokaogon/Mole Lake) in an effort to get approval for a casino at the dog track.

That effort lasted until late 2001 when the casino proposal finally hit a brick wall. The 10-month fight in 1988 and 1989 to stop the original dog track seemed like a walk in the park compared to the nine-plus-year battle between casino proponents and opponents!

A little known fact, however -- Hudson voters actually approved a casino in a non-binding referendum in December 1992. The pro-casino referendum passed 1,351-1,288. Even that, however, sparked a controversy. The town of Troy held a similar vote and the anti-casino group won that battle -- if a person combined the two votes, the anti-casino vote came out on top by a slight margin.

The casino effort included a long, complicated process, including environmental assessments and an application to the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA first denied the Hudson application, but it was then discovered that the BIA had been pressured by Indian tribes who could have been financially impacted by competition from a casino in Hudson. After threats of lawsuits, the BIA later reversed its decision.

But when all seemed ready to go, then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum vetoed the casino. That was followed by a series of lawsuits. Among them was a suit that a state's governor should not have veto power over an agency of the federal government. The argument was that if an applicant did all the paper work and the BIA was satisfied, a governor should not hold that much power.

All legal channels were seemingly exhausted by the end of 2001. That same year the dog track closed and it has sat empty ever since.

People who come to town today often have great ideas for the track site. The bottom line is, of course, the track has never been for sale.

Havenick was diagnosed with lymphoma in November 2005 and died June 21, 2006, in Miami. The property is still owned by the Havenick heirs and, to date, none has expressed any interest in selling the track. Owners continue to pay taxes on the property. Meanwhile, the facility continues to deteriorate and some say the building will probably have to be torn down eventually - there is no good plan for a nearly 20-year-old building, designed as a dog track, which has been empty for the past eight-plus years.