BREAKING: Churchill Downs nixes Ellis Park Owensboro facility in mall; looking for new expansion locations

May 31, 2023 | 8:27 pm

Updated May 31, 2023 | 9:08 pm

Ellis Park Owensboro

Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) has nixed the plans to use Owensboro’s Towne Square Mall for the Ellis Park extension facility, and the company is now looking for other locations to build the entertainment venue.

Until Wednesday, it appeared Ellis Entertainment remained in the early stages of opening the new entertainment venue in the mall, specifically in the former JCPenney’s location. The venue was expected to open with a wide selection of historical racing machines (HRMs), a simulcast betting and viewing area, and a new race- and sports-themed bar and grill.

A fence had blocked off access to the building for several months, but the fence is no longer in place.

In a text message Wednesday evening, CDI Vice President of Corporate Communications Tonya Abeln told Owensboro Times:

“Churchill Downs Incorporated has shifted plans for the previously-announced Owensboro facility and we are still evaluating new locations that will better enable us to create a premier entertainment destination for all residents of the region. We look forward to creating hundreds of jobs, driving significant economic activity and partnering with the community in which we ultimately choose to develop our Ellis Park extension facility.”

Asked if any of those potential locations are in Daviess County, Abeln wrote “We are not prepared to say at this time.”

Despite specific questions from OT about why CDI was no longer pursuing the expansion to the mall, Abeln did not provide a reason.

However, the decision comes after the City of Owensboro in March declined to amend the smoking ban that has been in place since 2014. (Daviess County’s smoking ordinance has been in place since 2005, but the City adopted their own ordinance in 2014 that even further restricts where smoking is allowed.)

Commissioners heard the first reading of the proposed amendment on March 8, when officials said the intention was to help Ellis Entertainment in sales. Ellis officials had raised concerns that the current ordinance would negatively affect the sales at the venue that was being planned in Towne Square Mall.

“Churchill explained that they believe the ability to smoke at the facility is integral to its success,” City Manager Nate Pagan said at the time. “In discussions about the issue, the Board of Commissioners seemed open to their request. As a result, staff began negotiating with Churchill Downs about potential changes to the smoking ordinance.”

The amendment would have allowed smoking “in a limited scale for projects meeting various criteria.” Pagan previously noted those proposed criteria included:

  • The project or site must have at least 50,000 square feet of space and represent a capital investment of at least $30 million.
  • Smoking would only be allowed in a limited portion of the space which is not to exceed 15% of the total space accessible to the public.
  • The smoking area must be partitioned with a full wall and a vestibule or double doors between smoking and non-smoking areas.
  • A separate air purification system is required.
  • The location must not allow patrons under the age of 18.

On March 21, the City Commission agreed to indefinitely postpone a vote regarding an amendment to the City’s smoking ordinance after local physicians and other medical professionals strongly voiced opposition to the proposal.

No officials involved would confirm whether the smoking ban caused the deal to fall through. OT specifically asked Abeln if it was a factor, but her general statement did not address that question.

Owensboro Mayor Tom Watson and City Manager Nate Pagan declined to comment. Gulfstream officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening. Daviess County Judge-Executive Charlie Castlen said he was unable to answer any questions Wednesday evening about whether or not he had been in talks with CDI officials regarding possible locations for a facility elsewhere in the county.

OT broke the news about the initial plans for the Ellis Park expansion in October 2021, and in March 2022 OT was the first to report Ellis Park had reached a definitive lease agreement with TSM Holdings LLC to lease 62,000 square feet in the former JCPenney’s location. 

The project was estimated to cost $20 million. Construction was originally supposed to begin in summer 2022 with an anticipated opening date in early 2023, but little progress was ever made on the building.

In September 2022, CDI announced it had signed a definitive agreement to acquire Ellis Park Racing & Gaming in Henderson for total consideration of $79 million in cash. The agreement called for CDI to assume Ellis Park’s track extension facility project in Owensboro.

According to a release at the time, “CDI has commenced planning to make both critical investments in the Ellis Park racing infrastructure and to construct Owensboro Racing & Gaming, a track extension and entertainment venue at Owensboro’s Towne Square Mall that will feature 600 HRMs, a simulcast wagering center, and multiple food and beverage offerings.”

Company officials said CDI expected its total investment in Henderson and Daviess counties to be approximately $75 million in addition to the purchase price.

“The opportunity to bring Churchill Downs to Owensboro is particularly significant to us,” Jason Sauer, Senior Vice President of Corporate Development for CDI, said in the release. “We are eager to start the work to elevate Ellis Park’s reputation as a summer destination for Thoroughbred racing while delivering a premier gaming and entertainment experience to Daviess County. We look forward to sharing more exciting details about our plans in the coming days.”

A week after the acquisition announcement, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission officially approved Churchill Downs’ purchase of Ellis Park. 

May 31, 2023 | 8:27 pm

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