Billionaire buys Woodlands racing complex, but future fuzzy
Kansas City, Kan. A billionaire Las Vegas casino owner has purchased The Woodlands racing complex in eastern Kansas, but with a number of unanswered legislative questions and an estimated $50 million in renovations needed, the facility's future is far from certain.
Competition from Kansas City, Missouri, casinos and a lagging interest in dog racing started dragging down what once was a main attraction in Wyandotte County. Slot machines were considered a remedy for the facility's problems after the state signed the Kansas Expanded Lottery Act into law in 2007, allowing such places to become racinos, The Kansas City Star reported.
The tax rate on slots at the track was so severe, however, that it would have been difficult if not impossible to turn a profit, Woodlands supporters said. The track, which opened in 1989, held its grand finale race in August 2008 and then closed.
Phil Ruffin now owns three Kansas tracks — all closed — including Camptown Greyhound Park in Frontenac and Wichita Greyhound Park in Park City. He said he could employ a total of 2,000 people among all three from the start if the Legislature approves a measure giving them a bigger share of any slot machine winnings.
Under the current law, "destination casino resorts" like the Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway pay about 27 percent of revenue in taxes to the state and local government. But if the Woodlands were to add slot machines, 60 percent of the net electronic gaming income would be divided among the local city or county, racing purses and other state funds. That leaves the racetrack with 25 percent to take home and 15 percent that can be used for gaming expenses.
Several attempts have been made over the years to revive racetracks in the state by changing the tax structure. The latest was a measure backed by Leavenworth Republican Sen. Steve Fitzgerald during this year's legislative session that would let the racino keep 64.5 percent of income for the first two years and 60.5 percent every year after that. The bill passed the Senate on a 24-12 vote, but it stalled in the House. And there's no guarantee it will be approved next year.
"We won't do anything until (Fitzgerald's bill) passes the House," Ruffin said.
On a recent visit to The Woodlands, Ruffin saw the blemishes up close. He noted the interior needed to be gutted, the need for a new ceiling and a new roof. He estimated renovations could cost $50 million or more, but decided to buy it anyway.
If an agreement on the taxes can't be reached, Ruffin will still have 400 prime acres in an area that has seen a burst of new construction and attractions in recent years.
"We buy ground all the time," he said. "It's a business we know."