Southland Yearns for Dogs' Glory Days

by Jack Whitsett  on Monday, Jan. 14, 2002 12:00 am  

Once one of the two largest and richest greyhound racing tracks in the nation, Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis now struggles merely to survive, General Manager Barry Baldwin said last week.

Mind you, Baldwin has a plan to resurrect at least a facsimile of the park's glory days. He just needs a little help from the state.

"Southland was always the Churchill Downs [home of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky.] of greyhound racing," Baldwin said.

Whether the head-shaking nostalgia surrounding Southland is genuine or just poor-mouthing in the best state-regulated business tradition, Baldwin can point to some concrete numbers to back his case. Southland attendance has dropped 67.5 percent since 1990. The handle, or amount bet by patrons, decreased 75.3 percent in the same period. The economic impact on the state's coffers is obvious; Southland pays a 3 percent privilege tax on the total wagered plus 1 percent on most simulcast wagering.

The main bogeyman for Southland would appear to be casino gambling in northern Mississippi. In 1991, the last full year before casinos started opening across the river, 1.55 million people attended Southland races, wagering $298.3 million, according to the track's figures. By 1994 attendance had dropped to 866,620 with a $125.4 million handle. In 2001, only 535,453 people tripped the turnstiles, betting just $53.8 million.

Southland's share of the take for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2000, was received $19.9 million, according to the most recent legislative audit.

"Everything has taken a lick as a result of the casinos," said state Rep. Steve Jones, D-West Memphis. "If you look at the numbers since the casinos came in, the revenues at Southland have been in steady decline."

Jones, whose district includes Southland, helped the track out last year with a bill that cut the simulcasting tax from 2 percent to the current 1 percent. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature and became Act 1837 on May 4, 2001.

West Memphis Landmark

The nation's major east-west artery, Interstate 40, crosses Interstate 55, an important north-south freeway, at West Memphis. The city sprawls along the low delta across the Mississippi River from the storied bluffs upon which perches downtown Memphis. Subject to annual flooding, the Arkansas side is largely uninhabited for a mile or so, until the land rises somewhat to meet the truck stops, treeless housing developments and freeway interchanges that are West Memphis.

Sylvan, gracious neighborhoods lie just a couple of minutes off the highways, but they are no more noticed by motorists than is the crumbling commercial zone along Broadway or the overgrown wooded strip where three ghastly child-murders took place in 1993.

But you can't miss Southland Greyhound Park, a fixture since 1956 on Ingram Blvd. adjacent to I-55. West Memphis, perpetually stuck, it seems, at about 28,000 inhabitants since then, has retreated steadily in population ranking among Arkansas cities. Tenth in 1990, the city lost 2.1 percent of its citizens by 2000 and fell to 12th as Conway and Rogers zoomed past.

But West Memphis had, until the past decade, boasted an industry-leading facility in Southland. And even before Southland, Baldwin said, the sport carried on at the Riverside Kennel Club in the shadow of the old Mississippi Bridge through the Depression.

Quality Draws Bets

Though the track Web site touts "an impressive list of greyhounds and kennels," a chief symptom of what ails Southland is the declining quality of the dogs racing there, track management claims.

"The decline in the caliber of greyhounds racing at [the park] is a major reason for the decrease in attendance and handle and subsequent drop in wagering tax revenue for Arkansas," a Southland newsletter states.

Baldwin compares the situation to college football.

"People tend to bet more on the higher-quality animal," he said. "If you had a choice of watching Arkansas and Tennessee [or] Panhandle A&M versus Nicholls State ... you want to bet on the best greyhounds and the best horses."

But how to compete effectively against the casinos, thereby attracting better dogs, which will increase attendance, wagering and tax collections, allowing for more effective competition against the casinos? Baldwin has an uncomplicated answer: Bring the casinos, at least part of them, to the track.

Greyhound parks in Rhode Island, Iowa and, soon, New York, allow other forms of gambling such as slot machines and video lottery games, Baldwin said. Such operations produce 95-99 percent of the tax revenue at the greyhound tracks, while the tracks use their share to increase purses, luring the sought-after top kennels and dogs.

Glory Days

In the past, Baldwin said, Southland essentially monopolized U.S. greyhound racing along with Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, Fla. Each was open only six months a year.

"The top 15 kennels ran at Southland in the summer, St. Petersburg in the winter," Baldwin said. The expense and toll on kennel employees' families resulting from two complete moves a year finally outweighed the cozy dual-track system.

"It became really beneficial to be open [year-round]," Baldwin said.

Southland is owned by Delaware North Companies Inc. of Buffalo, N.Y. A privately held corporation, DNC operates various companies, including the National Hockey League Boston Bruins; Fleet Center, the Bruins' arena; Sportsystems Corp., including Southland and several other greyhound tracks; and Delaware North Parks Services, which runs concession businesses in national parks.

summary

Once one of the two largest and richest greyhound racing tracks in the nation, Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis now struggles merely to survive, General Manager Barry Baldwin said last week.

Southland Greyhound Park Attendance and Handle, 1990-2001

Year — Attendance — Handle

1990 — 1,646,714 — $218,044,000
1991 — 1,546,751 — $298,337,000
1992 — 1,464,819 — $197,370,000
1993 — 1,202,400 — $163,852,000
1994 — 866,620 — $125,358,000
1995 — 814,145 — $100,656,000
1996 — 772,788 — $87,770,000
1997 — 686,456 — $76,794,000
1998 — 648,687 — $71,345,000
1999 — 594,176 — $62,769,000
2000 — 573,121 — $60,241,000
2001 — 535,453 — $53,809,000

 

 

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