Local officials have strong reactions to Churchill changing plans for Ellis Park extension

June 2, 2023 | 12:11 am

Updated June 2, 2023 | 12:21 am

City Commissioners had strong reactions to the news Owensboro Times broke about Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) scrapping plans to use Towne Square Mall for the Ellis Park extension facility. While they have staunchly different views, none were surprised by the decision — though even they didn’t know where things stood after weeks of radio silence from CDI. Here’s a breakdown of what City officials had to say, plus some thoughts from County Commissioners.

Quick background info

OT was the first to report Wednesday that CDI had nixed the plans to use Towne Square Mall for the Ellis Park extension, and the company is now looking for other locations to build the entertainment venue.

A CDI spokesperson confirmed the company was “evaluating new locations” but declined to say if they were in Daviess County. That spokesperson also declined to answer specific questions from OT about why CDI was no longer pursuing the expansion to the mall.

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.)

The spokesperson did not respond to a request for further comment Thursday.

City Commissioner Mark Castlen

“I worked and worked to try to get the deal to go through.”

Castlen was in favor of amending the smoking ordinance. He said that because of the lengths Churchill was willing to go, he felt it was actually the smokers’ rights that were “somewhat being violated” if the amendment wasn’t passed. 

“Churchill had said that they would be willing to build a separate smoking section with an independent filtration system and independent A/C so that none of the smoke came out. It was going to have a double-door entry system — a double-door entry foyer and then another set of double doors. You would have to go through the non-smoking (section) to get through to the smoking (section), so it wasn’t gonna be where any of the non-smokers were subjected to or forced to go into the smoking section,” he said. 

Castlen said CDI’s plan called for no food or drink being brought in and out of the smoking area, meaning workers would also not be exposed to smoke. 

“I feel like they bent over backwards to try to work with us. I feel like we looked the gift horse in the mouth, so to speak,” he said. “I’m disappointed that the other Commissioners didn’t work more to help land this $30 million dollar deal that would have landed 100 jobs or more, and would have rejuvenated the mall area.”

Castlen said he knew CDI was possibly looking at other sites. 

“They did not keep that secret from me,” he said. “I worked and worked with them and with the other Commissioners to try to get it to work out. … I feel like we have possibly lost a golden opportunity to rejuvenate that mall area.”

Castlen said he wants the City to reconsider changing the ordinance, but doesn’t know if it’s too late even if they were to approve the amendment. He hopes CDI will at least keep the project in Daviess County.

“I would really be disappointed if they did not at least locate in Daviess County, and even more so if we don’t go back to the table and try to work something out for the City. It’s a lot of lost revenue,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to revitalize that mall area. There’s just not that many options to revitalize an area like that anymore.”

Castlen even went further, saying he received communication from someone that said he was planning on making a $4 million investment into the mall by locating his business there. 

“But it was contingent on Churchill locating there, because he needed a base store that would draw people in to help with the business. So instead of losing a $30 million investment, we lost $34 million in that mall,” Castlen said.

Mayor Tom Watson

“People think I can just make somebody vote some way because I’m the mayor. But my vote is just one vote, just like everybody else’s.”

Watson was also in favor of amending the smoking ordinance. He said the Southtown area could “really use a boost,” but the project just didn’t have the votes. 

“I told (Churchill) at the beginning you gotta get three votes, and I said we have a very tight smoking ban. I asked them then, ‘Are you coming if you can’t (allow smoking)?’ and I did not get an answer,” he said.

Watson said it’s disappointing to lose such a big economic development project. 

“You’re talking about a $7 million payroll and 130 jobs and a $50 million dollar investment. You don’t get those every day from the private sector,” he said.

Watson also said he doesn’t know if it’s too late to save the deal if the City were to amend the ordinance now.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I know that they really liked that building. We’ve even looked at de-annexing that building itself, and there was not an appetite for that either.

Churchill is a tremendous name, and they’re probably not accustomed to having a community saying ‘Thanks, but no, thanks.’ That’s pretty disappointing.”

Watson said he’s heard CDI is looking into properties in the county or in Henderson, but doesn’t know anything for certain.

City Commissioner Pam Smith-Wright

“I’m not going to change my mind.”

Smith-Wright said she really hoped the Ellis Park expansion to the mall would happen, but she wasn’t budging on the smoking issue.

“I’m sorry about that, because I would love for it to be here, and I had expressed that to the Churchill people,” she said. “I think it would have helped our community, and I just did not understand why they were so hellbent on having a smoking section. I just never understood it, and it never made any sense to me since only 15% of the property was going to be smoking. What about the other 85%?”

Smith-Wright said it wouldn’t have been fair to amend the ordinance just to benefit Churchill when other businesses in the community have had to stop allowing smoking because of the ordinance. 

She also said a completely non-smoking venue may have attracted an even bigger crowd.

“My thinking is they may have picked up a lot more business if they (were totally) non-smoking. I know there are people who still smoke, but there are lots of folks who don’t smoke. I think there are probably more people who don’t smoke than there are people who do,” she said. “For me, I just know that from a healthy community standpoint, I didn’t feel that that would be the direction that we should go in.”

Smith-Wright originally said CDI didn’t indicate to her that they were looking at other locations, but after thinking said, “I think I did hear them say something about, ‘if you all don’t consider this maybe we’ll go to the county.’ And it was kind of like a little threat.”

City Commissioner Bob Glenn

“When we told them no on smoking, we pretty much knew the odds were high they weren’t gonna stick around.”

Glenn was also firmly against amending the smoking ordinance, even knowing that could be a dealbreaker.

“We had pretty intense conversations with them, and they had their stance and we had ours, and we couldn’t reach an agreement,” he said. “The original (owners of Ellis Park) were fine without putting smoking in the facility. And then they sold out the Churchill, which I don’t think anybody anticipated. Churchill came in with a different set of rules.”

As they considered the options, Glenn said the biggest issue was other businesses potentially asking for amendments and trying to allow smoking.

“People aren’t stupid. They’ll look at that law and go ‘I want a cigar bar. I want to do this, I want to do that the law allows me to do it.’ We weren’t really looking to increase the opportunities for people to smoke,” he said. 

Glenn also said there’s a bigger issue at play than smoking, and it’s not one the City or CDI have any control over.

“My view is that so much gambling now is done online that a stand up physical location has far less economic value than it did maybe 10 years ago,” he said. “… And they’re limited in what they have. They’re not a true casino. All they have is Historical Horse Racing. That’s it. That’s a jerry-rigged way of keeping the horse racing industry in the slots. There’s no video poker. There’s no roulette. There’s no blackjack. There’s no Baccarat. There’s no Keno. They told us, ‘We can’t succeed if we don’t allow smoking to compete with Bally’s in Evansville.’ Well the reason they can’t compete with Bally’s in Evansville or any other casino with normal roles is that they don’t provide all the normal casino games and services.”

Glenn said CDI needs to talk to the state legislature about expanded casino gaming options.

“And the facility that they would build if they had that, by the way, would be five times the size of what they were going to build in the mall,” he said.

Still, Glenn hopes CDI will still consider Daviess County for the project so the area can still benefit from added jobs. He said he’s also heard rumors about possible locations in Henderson and Daviess County, but nothing official.

Interim City Commission Sharon NeSmith

“I have reached out and asked questions, and at this point being new, I’m not sure what laws and regulations are all involved in things.”

NeSmith said ideally she’d like to put the issue on a ballot for the voters to decide, but City Manager Nate Pagan told Owensboro Times it’s not something that can be a referendum.

NeSmith said based on the information she has currently she might consider approving a smoking ordinance, but she hasn’t heard from all sides and her stance could change.

“I really don’t know if I had more information how I would feel about it one way or the other,” she said.

Daviess County Fiscal Court

Fiscal Court members largely said they don’t have much to add at this point.

Daviess County Judge-Executive Charlie Castlen said, “I had an informal meeting with (Churchill representatives). Absolutely nothing was discussed as far as locations.” He said that talk was probably within 2 weeks of the City Commission deciding not to vote on the smoking ordinance amendment.

Commissioner Larry Conder said that he was part of a meeting 2-3 months ago with Churchill Downs representatives, and toward the end of the conversation they addressed the idea of building the facility on County land, which has more lax smoking laws. 

Conder said there were also a couple questions, one of which was if CDI did build in the county, “could (Fiscal Court) guarantee that (the property) not be annexed into the city, and I’m like ‘no we can’t guarantee that.’”

Conder said he’d support the expansion project because it would benefit the local economy. He said that he told CDI they didn’t really need permission from County officials anyway.

“There’s nothing that Fiscal Court can do really as far as ordinances or anything else is concerned to prevent it from happening,” he said. “The law allows them to (build a facility as long as they meet legal requirements). They don’t need our approval to do it or anything like that, unless they want us to give them incentives.”

Conder said he wasn’t sure what location CDI was pursuing though, because since that meeting he has “not heard one word from anybody at Churchill Downs.”

County Commissioner Chris Castlen similarly said the only discussion he had “was at the very beginning of this process when they said they were looking here in Owensboro and Daviess County.” He said he’s not had any other conversations with CDI since that time.

He also said there’s nothing Fiscal Court could do to stop CDI from building in the County, but he wouldn’t try to prevent the project anyway.

“They’re gonna build somewhere, and (it has to be within a certain) radius of where they have to be from one of their locations. If we’re the best location for them, I would love to see Owensboro and Daviess County be able to be a part of that if we fit into the realm of what the possibilities are,” he said. “If it’s going to be someplace close to here, I’d hate for our community to miss out on this opportunity. … We might as well be able to get the benefits from that. I’m not a gambler and it’s not something I would go to, but if it’s best for our community then let’s do what’s best.”

County Commissioner Janie Marksberry said she was busy with meetings most of Thursday, but did say via text that “I don’t really know of any additional plans right now concerning the county.”

Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation Board Chair Amy Jackson did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

June 2, 2023 | 12:11 am

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