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Batavia Downs reopens at noon after $27 million expansion

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 4 October 2013 at 12:00 am

Orleans County is part owner of the race track

Photo from Batavia Downs’ Facebook page – Batavia Downs has been teasing images of the new $27 million expansion and renovation project through its Facebook page.

BATAVIA – Orleans County residents may not realize that our county is part owner of Batavia Downs, which today at noon will open its doors to the public following a $27 million expansion project.

The Downs is owned by Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., which was formed 40 years ago when 15 counties and the cities of Rochester and Buffalo entered the OTB business.

At one time, OTB parlors were a booming business, but the expansion of state-sanctioned gambling as well as a downturn in horse racing fans has put OTB parlors in a deficit. The New York City OTB has gone out of business, unable to make money anymore.

Western OTB is the only regional OTB in the state that owns a race track. Western OTB bought Batavia Downs in 1998. It seemed a doomed venture. But 10 years ago the state allowed video gaming machines (which look a lot like slots) in the race tracks. That has proven a major bonanza for WROTB. The video gaming more than offsets losses at OTB parlors and in running live horse racing meets. Some of those profits trickle down to Orleans County.

Orleans and other member counties should reap more money now that Batavia Downs has expanded the gaming floor and improved the amenities at the rack track on Park Road.

I covered Batavia Downs for about a decade for The Daily News in Batavia. There were times the organization was in financial crisis. But video gaming, where customers lose more than $40 million a year in Batavia, has proven a life-saver for WROTB, which shares about half of the revenue with the state.

I won’t be able to stop by Batavia today, but I hope to get out for the formal ribbon-cutting on Oct. 17. I’m not a gambler myself, but it is quite remarkable to see the resurgence of this old race track. If I were a betting man, I would have predicted the building would have been razed to make way for a Big Box store.

The Downs has steadily grown its business while competing against fancier Indian-owned sites in Niagara Falls, Salamanca and the Turning Stone resort in Verona. Those sites give a much smaller percentage of the profits to the state.

New York has embraced gambling, without much protest from its residents. If gambling and casinos are going to be here, I support Batavia Downs getting some of the action and investing in a local site and employing local people. Some of the profits are divvied up to WNY counties that badly need the money.