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The Roanoke Rapids Planning Board Thursday agreed to pass on to the city council a recommendation for approval of an amendment that would permit a multi-use indoor and outdoor recreation facility in the entertainment overlay district — better known as the Carolina Crossroads Music and Entertainment District.

The proposed amendment is specifically tied to a horse racing proposal that was presented to the board although it covers a myriad of sports competitions.

With one member absent the board, on a motion by Steve Ellis, approved a recommendation of consistency with two members voting against the measure.

The recommendation of approval for the amendment made on a motion by Gregory Browning passed by the same 7-2 measure with Carrie Tuning and Joseph Brinkley voting in the negative.

The matter will now go before the city council.

Legislative background

Roanoke Rapids attorney Bill White told the board during a public hearing on the matter the entertainment district needs to be developed.

Referring to the casino proposal he presented last year, White said, “Unfortunately, the politics of last year’s regular session of the General Assembly did not permit introduction of the legislation to permit four non-tribal casinos in North Carolina.”

According to the last draft of the proposed casino legislation that was ready to be introduced “until it got squashed” clearly identified the Roanoke Rapids overlay district as a site, he said. “It had to be X miles from here, X miles from there, travelers from I-95 by the county and within an entertainment district. We’re the only entertainment district I’m aware of in the state of North Carolina so take it from there.”

White said it remains the group’s hope that the casino matter may still come up in the legislature’s short session. “ … You never know what’s going to come out, that that group has to come up with something to balance the budget.”

He said, however, what the General Assembly’s regular session did was pass a session law which authorized wagering on professional, college and amateur sports and on live horse racing. “The session law also added sports wagering and pari-mutuel wagering to that chapter.”

The criminal statute, he said, was changed to say horse racing is not prohibited.

The guidelines for horse racing are still pending. “We had hoped when we scheduled this there would have been a bill introduced. We’ve seen three different drafts and it provides for various things. It’s more than just a horse track. It’s got to have air-conditioned stables, breeding facilities, vet facilities, equestrian studding places. It’s more than just a race track. It also permits a place of public accommodation for sports wagering.”

Client proposal

White said if the horse racing legislation can gain approval, “My client believes he’s got enough investors that they’re ready to make this thing happen.”

He noted, however, “If we had our choices between a casino or the race track, obviously we’d rather have the casino because there would be more employees, more full-time employees. But both of them can generate a lot of money. The State Lottery Commission has been floored at the amount of money that the sports books are making. We also believe that through the efforts of the lottery commission, the department of commerce, Halifax County tourism, Halifax County development and others that we can come up with a real good plan about how to best market development of horse tracks, training facilities, breeding facilities, tourism associated equestrian activities, sports wagering and any other activities.”

Need for the amendment

White said if the current definition of multi-use outdoor recreation facilities is renamed to multi-use indoor-outdoor for recreation and reclassified, “our client believes he has the contacts to make this happen.”

He said time is always of the essence in development matters. “If someone’s looking at something and it’s permitted they’re going to move. If they have to wait for a month to see if it gets permitted you sometimes lose that opportunity.”

The amendment was written to be broad enough, White said, so if the horse track didn’t go through there could be other things in the district “that could move the project forward as a music and entertainment district.”

Planning board member Gregory Browning said he agreed with White. “In this short session they floated a lot of items but yet they haven’t made any concrete decisions … You never know what might happen in the short session. I agree with you on being prepared rather than to wait and say I wish we would have been prepared for something just in case.”

White said he believes eventually the horse track matter will come to fruition. “One of the things is the lottery commission has to have guidelines in place by the first of January of 2025. It has to be available for comment by mid-February. I wish instead of just seeing drafts I could tell you there’s been something introduced with a house bill or senate bill with a number. But we don’t have it.”

Other considerations

White said his clients anticipate the facility would be at the north end of the project, towards the left of the theater or it could be on the backside near Aurelian Springs Road.

He said there are more than 700 acres of land in the entertainment district of which his clients control around 350 acres. “They would love to have the other 350 that’s available. I would love to think in my lifetime that place would be fully developed and that we would be coming to planning and the planning board to figure out how we can go across  Chockoyotte Creek or go across County Road, Aurelian Springs Road.”

White said his clients believe they have enough land for a horse facility. “All this is somewhat dependent and it’s good that it can’t happen immediately because you don’t have the guidelines or requirements coming out until 2025. Hopefully by then there’ll be some movement on video lottery things and casinos and get all that stuff cleaned up and under control.”

Wray comments

“North Carolina is big on equestrian and we have facilities around the state,” Representative Michael Wray said today. “With the new sports betting laws in place there’s opportunities there for potential horse racing.”

Wray said the lottery commission has been given the directive to do horse racing but hasn’t implemented the process yet. “It’s just like when they did sports betting. They had to go out and get people to bid and get vendors and get it implemented.”

Wray said he has legislation he is attempting to get in the final budget for Tier 1 counties. “We’re a shovel ready project,” he said of the entertainment district. “I’m working on language to address the lottery commission to implement a criteria for the state for horse racing and I’m working with other members.”

Since the state has sports betting the lottery commission has been given the task to implement it but the ground rules have not been set yet.

Wray said the area is rich in equestrian history with the legacy of Sir Archie in Northampton County and horse racing in Halifax County. “If you go back to the Kentucky Derby they had like 20-some horses under the lineage of Sir Archie. Up and down the corridor of I-95 it’s an ideal situation for economic growth. We’ve got to think out of the box. It would be an asset to our community, it would be an asset for the state and the equestrian industry.”

Looking at equestrian centers like the Bob Martin center in Martin County and the Jim Hunt facility at the state fairgrounds, “We’re rich in Northampton and Halifax County in horse racing from the past,” he said. “The main objective is the theater has to be sustainable. They have to have at least a couple of shows there a month and then they are focused on the waterpark and focusing on this racetrack and focused on this (outdoor) amphitheater so it will be a multi-purpose situation. They’ve got to do something because if the casino doesn’t come they’ve got to keep flowing. Now is the time to strike because you’ve got to think out of the box.”

As far as the casino discussions, he said, “We’re in session still. We’re still working through the budget process and casinos are not at the forefront at the present time.”

He said lawmakers are going through the budget process. “It’s a short session and I have not heard anything strongly about casinos but still it’s open, we’re still in open session so anything is feasible with revenue. Casinos are still active, video lottery terminals are still active and anything dealing with revenue is active or bills that pass from one side to the other are still active.”