By Brent Cooper
The recent announcement by Churchill Downs to construct a $38.4 million gaming facility in the Newport Plaza Shopping Center that will open later this year is a trifecta for the Northern Kentucky region.
First, when completed, the new facility will create about 70 new full-time jobs, not to mention the construction-related jobs the project will produce.
Second, the project will help to revitalize one of Newport’s older retail center located in a neighborhood that is currently seeing a lot of new investment by homeowners and residential developers.
Finally, the location of the gaming facility near I-471 will make it convenient for residents of our region and a tourist attraction for out-of-state visitors to enjoy the Kentucky racing experience without having to drive to tracks in Lexington or Louisville. With a full-blown casino less than five minutes away in Ohio, this will give Northern Kentuckians a choice to do some gaming on this side of the river.
The 17,000-s.f. facility will feature 500 Historical Racing Machines, known as HRMs, which use the outcomes of past horse races to provide an experience like slot machines, a horse-racing simulcast area, including a separate VIP room, and a bar.
The new facility – which is being referred to as the Turfway Extension – is an extension of Churchill Down’s racing license associated with Turfway Park, the Florence racetrack the company is currently renovating. The Turfway Extension will be similar to Churchill’s Derby City Gaming property, which is located near and is associated with the Churchill Downs racetrack.
This Newport development is good not just for our region, but for the entire commonwealth and its horse racing industry because it will increase— pari-mutuel wagering in the state, which in turn will generate larger purses for live racing, attract better horses, and spur new interest in pari-mutuel wagering and other types of legalized gambling opportunities.
Legislation allowing for legalized sports and casino gambling have been filed in the Kentucky General Assembly for several years, but the legislature has refused to vote on these bills while our neighboring states — particularly Ohio and Indiana — take in millions of tax dollars from Kentucky residents who travel to their nearby casinos.
During the most recent legislative session, House Bill 137, sponsored by Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, would have established a regulatory framework to allow Kentucky residents to legally bet on sports — in addition to playing online poker and fantasy sports contests. This change in our gaming laws would have generated an estimated $22.5 million in taxes that would have gone toward stabilizing state’s underfunded pension systems.
In the last two legislative sessions, after this bill passed out of the Housing Licensing, Occupations, and Administrative Regulations Committee, House leadership did not call for a vote on the bill.
Another bill in the 2020 legislative session, HB 181, which would allow residents to vote on a constitutional amendment for casino gambling, fared even worse. It never made it out of committee — once again. Why can’t our legislators let the people of this state have a vote on this issue, like many other states have done?
While the new Newport gaming facility is a great first step for our region and our state, the General Assembly needs to take further action on legalized gambling to compete with other states, provide additional revenue to support our signature horse industry, and address the pressing need to shore up our schools and public pension system.
Brent Cooper is president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.