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Friday, February 7, 2014

Lobbyist: Atlanta officials want horse racing for Turner Field site

Can we still do the tomahawk chop?
It's still anybody's guess what will replace Turner Field when the Braves make their controversial move to Cobb County in 2017. Affordable housing is one possibility, Mayor Kasim Reed has suggested. But here's another log for the fire: a horse-racing track with legalized pari-mutuel betting.

Elected officials have increasingly repeated rumors of a pari-mutuel horse-racing track. Those conversations have reportedly included an unnamed Atlanta City Council member, a Gold Dome lobbyist reported last month to the City of Conyers in Rockdale County.

As I first reported for the Rockdale News, lobbyist Elizabeth Miller said that when she brought up the Braves move with one council member, "Right out of his mouth was, 'Well, we'll do horse-racing.'"

Reed's office wouldn't confirm or deny the chatter to CL, but made it clear the mayor is focused on humans rather than horses.

"We don't comment on rumors," said Reed Spokesman Carlos Campos. "Mayor Reed has consistently said he is interested in bringing affordable housing to the area that is now Turner Field, possibly in a mixed-used development akin to the existing Glenwood Park in East Atlanta."

Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and Councilwoman Carla Smith, whose district includes Turner Field, did not immediately respond to CL comment requests.

Miller, who lobbies for various municipal legislation on Conyers' behalf, was careful to say the horse track idea is just a rumor, but indicated she is impressed at how often she's hear the idea from various state and city officials. Since 1995, Conyers has been home to the Georgia International Horse Park.

Pari-mutuel betting is currently illegal. But it's also rumored that City Hall officials would lobby strongly for its legalization. Miller reported that a pending legalization bill looks likely to pass under the Gold Dome, but will be tabled until next year to dodge any election-year controversy.

UPDATE, 12:15 a.m.: Smith told CL she heard the horse-racing rumor months ago, but not from fellow officials.

"There were a few little rumors [about pari-mutuel betting] when the Braves very first announced [their move,]" Smith said. "I'm kind of surprised to hear this rumor again."

She could not recall where she heard the idea, but knew one place it did not come from: "I have not heard that rumor at City Hall."

"If somebody's out there [proposing horse-racing], they need to go and talk to me and they need to go and talk to the neighborhood," Smith said. "The neighborhood is the most important player."

Added Smith: "You've got to put yourself in the shoes of the people who live there. Everybody needs to take a deep breath and check with the neighborhood. I could not say that more strongly."

She noted the area already has a master plan that will be updated through a community process to include preferences for any replacements for Turner Field. She added that it's unlikely that horse-racing will top the list. "I doubt there's much of an appetite for it," she said.

This is not the first time that similar wagering has been floated as a Turner Field replacement since the Braves' surprise November move announcement. That same month, Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts, a former Atlanta City Council president, proposed a casino there.

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