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The view from the grandstand during a fairgrounds race in the 1960s. The company that owns Suffolk Downs wants to bring thoroughbred racing back to Great Barrington. Courtesy BerkshireArchive.com

Lawmakers assure Great Barrington officials: Local permits required to reintroduce horse racing at Fairgrounds

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By Tuesday, Aug 13, 2019 News 13

Great Barrington — In an attempt to allay concerns and inject an additional measure of transparency into the process, the selectboard has sought answers from state lawmakers regarding a bill pending on Beacon Hill that would theoretically allow the return of horse racing to the Great Barrington Fairgrounds.

Thoroughbred horse racing at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds in the 1930s. Photo courtesy Great Barrington Historical Society

At the request of the selectboard, Town Manager Mark Pruhenski sent an email on July 24 to state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who represent Great Barrington in Boston, with a list of questions about Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 13.

Also of concern is whether a previous horse-racing license for Great Barrington dating to 1998—the last year racing was held at the fairgrounds—effectively grandfathers state approvals for the proposed operator, Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, owner of now-closed thoroughbred racing facility Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

Town Hall was packed Monday night, but selectboard chairman Steve Bannon made it clear that the subject would not dominate the regular board meeting and that brief public comments could be made during citizen speak near the end of the meeting.

See video below of Bannon’s statement, and another by Leigh Davis, regarding Senate Bill 101:

“We as a selectboard are gathered here to conduct the business of the town at a regularly scheduled meeting,” Bannon said. “Tonight’s not the time or the place to have a community discussion concerning Senate Bill 101 or racing at the fairgrounds.”

The possibility of the return of horse racing at the dormant fairgrounds has aroused passions in the region largely around the issues of traffic and animal safety, two issues Hinds told The Edge he is willing to work with town officials on.

Concern among town officials, on the other hand, is focused on local control and the legislative process. Others, including Housatonic resident Diego Gutierrez, have cited the questionable environmental record of Suffolk Downs.

At an Aug. 12 meeting, Great Barrington Selectboard member Leigh Davis, right, reads a statement focusing on transparency and what she called a ‘legislative loophole’ in the law. Listening are fellow board members, from right, Ed Abrahams, Bill Cooke and Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In addition, selectboard member Leigh Davis, who has been the most active board member on the topic, wanted to know why more town officials weren’t made aware of the legislation and why the town of Great Barrington was not represented at a public hearing on the bills on July 1 in Boston before the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

Davis also read a prepared statement (click here to read it) focusing on transparency and what she called a “legislative loophole” in Section 12 of the Senate bill allowing Sterling Suffolk to “bypass local approval” in re-establishing horse racing at the fairgrounds.

The sentence in question in Section 12 reads: “A new local approval … shall not be required for thoroughbred horse race tracks that were licensed by the commission, or by its predecessor state racing commission for commercial racing under Chapter 128A.”

“This sentence is important because in 1998 a permanent license for a commercial racetrack was granted to Great Barrington,” Davis said. “Sterling Suffolk has publicly said they were aware of this, and that it was a major factor in their decision to move their operations here.”

Pruhenski had posted on the town website the two Berkshire County lawmakers’ responses to the selectboard’s questions. Click here to read them.

The old cowshed at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds before it was condemned and demolished. Photo: David Scribner

Hinds and Pignatelli confirmed that, regardless of whether the legislation passes, local control would remain intact. Indeed, town officials have said Suffolk would need at least two special permits: One for commercial amusement and another for floodplain protection, and possibly a third for work in the town’s water quality protection overlay district.

All would require public hearings in which residents could air their concerns or express support for the project. Most of the fairgrounds property lies in a floodplain next to the Housatonic River. The requirement of a special permit is widely viewed in the planning and zoning community as putting a municipality in the driver’s seat in confronting a potentially unpopular project.

Hinds and Pignatelli also dispelled the notion that a townwide referendum would be prohibited under the legislation. In fact, if residents do not agree with the decision of the special permit-granting authority (most likely the selectboard), the legislation allows for a referendum to require authority’s reconsideration if 12 percent of registered voters in Great Barrington petitioned for it.

“If the selectboard continues to support its decision, the matter is put before the town for a vote,” the two lawmakers added.

But the grandfathering of state approvals seemed to be the murkiest aspect of the legislation. Hinds and Pignatelli said, “We believe the intention was to grandfather previous racing locations for potential future licenses” and “do not believe the intention of SB 101 was to remove a municipal approval process.”

In 2014 volunteers worked to clean up the grandstand and track. Photo: David Scribner

Hinds and Pignatelli also threw cold water on the notion that time was of the essence because the legislative session was winding down. Au contraire, they said, since the Legislature follows a two-year session. That session does not end until July 31, 2020, so there is still plenty of time for public input. Indeed, there is no deadline to submit written testimony to the committee.

Davis later sent a statement to The Edge thanking Hinds and Pignatelli for their responses, but said, “There is a need for more clarity on the question of a referendum,” especially in light of the fact that “Great Barrington may be ‘grandfathered in’ as a commercial horse racing location due to the issuance of a license to the town in 1998.”

“I look forward to seeking further clarity on this issue and working with our state legislators to amend the proposed bill so that a public referendum will be required [emphasis added] for Sterling Suffolk to engage in commercial horse racing in Great Barrington,” Davis said.

Pam Youngquist of Egremont told the selectmen, “There’s a tremendous amount of confusion around Sen. Hinds’ and Rep. Pignatelli’s responses to your questions in the community at large.”

See video below of Pam Youngquist’s questions to the selectboard:

Of the permanent license for racing issued to the fairgrounds in 1998, Youngquist asked if the town was conducting research to determine the origin of the “town or county approval that would have allowed that designation to happen.”

Bannon confirmed that was one of the things the town was trying to find out and that the results of that research “absolutely” would be made public. A public forum is also in the offing but not anytime soon.

“We’re not going to have a public forum now but once we have all the info, as a selectboard, there will be a time for a public forum,” Bannon said.

Later, Bannon added, “I guarantee you there will be a time and place to discuss the issue of commercial racing at the fairgrounds as a community. We will give you plenty of notice when that will be.”

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse has reached an agreement with fairgrounds owners Bart and Janet Elsbach to bring thoroughbred racing back to Great Barrington for up to 30 days of racing in the months of September and October starting in 2020. The company expects to spend between $15 million and $20 million, according to Pruhenski, who spoke last month with Chip Tuttle, Suffolk’s chief operating officer.

But in order to accomplish that feat, Suffolk needs a change in state law to permit it to hold races in Great Barrington while at the same time allowing it to maintain its simulcasting and betting operations back in East Boston. That’s one of the reasons for the proposed legislation.

The sponsor of the Senate bill is Sen. Joseph A. Boncore, D-Winthrop, whose district includes Suffolk Downs. Hinds is the co-sponsor. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is sponsoring the House bill.

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13 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Art A says:

    Any murkiness could easily be rectified by having our representatives offer an amendment to the bill which would address Article 12 by adding a Great Barrington exception or by eliminating the article in its entirety. This way Merrsrs. Pignatelli and Hinds won’t have to be concerned with what they may believe, nor worry about other interpretations, and everyone will know for sure.

  2. Grier Horner says:

    People who don’t want racing to return are right to be concerned. There doesn’t seem to be anything ambiguous about Section 12 of the state law when it says:: “A new local approval … shall not be required” to bring racing back. I agree with Art A’s proposal to have Pignatelli and Hinds modify or eliminate that section of the state law.

  3. Shawn G. says:

    “The progress of a nation can be judged by the way it treats its animals.” – Gandhi

    1. Leslie Weil says:

      Thank you for the reminder, Shawn.
      Too bad there aren’t more people that agree with Gandhi.

      1. Shawn says:


  4. Joan Embree says:

    Horse racing is not a sport. It’s a corrupt Industry of drugs, deception and death. Horses as well as all animals are not on Earth for humans to use and abuse – not for entertainment, exhibition, experimentation, meat or sport.

  5. Joan Embree says:

    Oh, God, I sound so preachy! I know it’s nearly impossible to exist without causing some other creature harm. I was guilty of it for years, having once had a restaurant and being a caterer who cooked meat for hundreds of customers, even though I was a vegetarian. It never seemed right to inflict my beliefs on others. Also, I loved so many meat-eating people as much as I loved other animals, so I’m owning up to my hypocrisy and ignorance (I took my little children to zoos – now I think zoos are prisons!) and I’m apologizing for sounding sanctimonious. But, really, we could all try much harder to be kinder and more compassionate, such as saying NO to horse racing.

  6. dennis irvine says:

    The legislative and regulatory confusion surrounding permitting horse racing to return to the GBFG sure seems pretty complex, who knows if the people will have a voice but, regardless of the outcome, doesn’t the onus rest with the gbfg.org’s decision to invite horse racing back in the first place?

    Grandfathered permit or not, racing cannot happen at the GBFG unless the owner/organization wants it to happen.

    And yet there has been very little public comment about this proposal from Bart Elsbach and/or the GFBG organization. The gbfg.org website makes no mention of bringing back horse racing.

    The Fairgrounds are, essentially, a community asset even if they are privately held. The gbfg.org has some, at least tacit, obligation to explain to the community how a return of horse racing positively aligns with gbfg.org’s vision as a ‘community redevelopment project’.


    1. DB says:

      If you went to the farmers’ market while it was held there, you witnessed the Elsbachs in action.
      Horrible upkeep and awful attitudes! Customers got stuck and towed from mud filled parking where the Elsbachs inflicted a mid season parking fee without any options. Customers were upset, market asked to end the fees with many options. The Elsbachs behaved like children and ultimately the fee was gone because the market paid them money …but not before weeks went by and a mediator was hired. The result was the market abandoning that “community asset”
      In another unbelievable incident Bart was arrested for vandalism later.

      None of these acts are “Recipes For Caring” or ways of “Connecting and Building the Community “
      Good luck trying to communicate with these folks but they should definitely be interviewed to see how in the world they think this is a community builder.

  7. Stephen Cohen says:

    I want to applaud Joan for her comments. I eat meat, but I could never kill and butcher an animal. Joan’s second comment is remarkable for its candor, and self analysis.

  8. Joan Embree says:

    Speaking of kindness and compassion, Stephen, thank you for your generous remarks. Have we met? If not, too bad for me.

  9. Rene Wood says:

    I applaud Leigh Davis for bringing this matter before GB’s Select Board and insisting that she be heard. Now that it is in the open and the community is becoming active on what very well may happen, I have deep concerns the current draft bill, Section 12, if it stays in the bill will give GB limited recourse should the bill pass and there appears to be too much money and politics to think that it won’t. I do not see a written statement in the bill that local control will have a say unless a convoluted process is gone through. A lawyer friend told me years ago, if it’s not written, it doesn’t matter what’s been said, or by whom, or how many times. I do question whether a use granted by the state that hasn’t been exercised for over two decades still goes with the land, as this is frequently not the case for uses in many towns ….use it or lose it. The owners of the fairgrounds, or the non profit governing the fairgrounds, must have entered into an agreement, or tentative agreement, with the folks advocating the return of racing. You don’t use people’s or non profit’s land without their agreement. And as this land has nonprofit status, how can it host a profit making activity? Finally, what exactly is GB going to get out of this? As a resident of Sheffield speaking for herself, get the draft legislation changed and keep it up Leigh!

    1. Rene Wood says:

      is Sterling Suffolk Racecourse going to lease the property or buy the fairgrounds if legislation is passed?

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