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Great Barrington Grapples With Horse Racing Questions At Selectboard Meeting

A room full of seated people face a table of similarly seated people
Josh Landes
The Great Barrington selectboard meeting on August 12th, 2019

There is plenty of confusion as locals consider the possibility of horse racing returning to Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Stephen Bannon summed up the tone in the Berkshire County town after Monday night’s selectboard meeting.

“Well, there’s a lot of people who are just confused, and there are a lot of people who don’t want to see racing, and there’s some people – and many people – who do want to see racing," he told WAMC. "But the most overriding thing is that people want clarity, and we don’t have clarity right now.”

The selectboard chair says an inquest is underway at the local and state level to find that clarity.

“Right now the town is investigating what licenses and permits exist right now for horse racing at the fairgrounds, and also we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen in the Senate with Bill 101 and are trying to figure out the implications of that bill if it passes," said Bannon.

The intersection of those two levels came from a discovery made by selectboard member Leigh Davis, who began investigating after a public hearing July 1st with Sterling Suffolk Racecourse – the company behind the closed Suffolk Downs track in East Boston that is eager to relocate to Great Barrington in the fall of 2020.

“That then led into me diving in deeper into S.101 and finding what I perceive as a legislative loophole that Suffolk could take advantage of in terms of bypassing local approval because seemingly, they have a commercial license that was granted to Great Barrington in 1998,” said Davis.

That was the last year Great Barrington hosted racing.

Bannon says the town is trying to sort out how lasting what appears to be a community vote on a permanent license for horse racing from the late 90s really is – or even when it happened.

“There is no clarity on that," reiterated the selectboard chair. "There is the discussion that there was a vote. It’s put down as a community-wide vote, I’m not sure what that means, and that there could be permanent – could be permanently grandfathered. I’m not sure anything is permanent, so we’re really at a loss. We’re trying to figure that out.”

Davis’s concern is about the town losing its voice in the matter.

“If it is confirmed, that could potentially show that there will not be a public referendum available to Great Barrington voters," said the selectboard member. "And this is of concern so what I’ve been looking into is talking to state legislators and working with them to see if there is a way to amend S.101 and any other bill that might come following this to ensure that Great Barrington voters have a say in whether a commercial race track comes into Great Barrington.”

Davis says she’s been in productive talks with state Senator Adam Hinds, the democrat who represents the Berkshires and is a co-sponsor of S.101, a revision to the state’s horse racing regulations. Hinds and fellow Democrat Smitty Pignatelli –Southern Berkshire County’s state House representative – published a letter to Great Barrington in an attempt to answer questions around the bill.

“I think it did contribute and make things a little clearer, but I think as with any legal bill, it’s still not as clear as it could be," said Bannon. "Not their fault.”

Pam Youngquist, a self-identified concerned citizen of Great Barrington, spoke at the meeting. She told WAMC that she and a number of similarly concerned residents came to the meeting over trepidation with the situation, and described the state legislators’ attempt to clarify as containing “a tremendous amount of ambiguity.”

“There are concerned citizens all over that are bringing topics and issues from the environment – the fairgrounds itself are on a flood plain next to a federally recognized endangered waterway. There are people who have great issue with the animal cruelty of thoroughbred horse racing. There are people who are tremendously concerned about traffic and infrastructure, particularly for the businesses where many of us shop on a daily basis – that being Big Y and Guido’s across from that location – as well as what it will be like to have gigantic horse rigs going through downtown Great Barrington,” she told WAMC.

As for a larger town forum on the issue, Bannon says it’s still too early.

“I think the community conversation can’t happen or shouldn’t happen until we have a very clear picture of what happened in the past and what this bill means," said the selectboard chair.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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