BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It was going to be a gold mine for investors, a boon to the state and local economy, and the jewel in the crown of Birmingham's efforts to restore its old "Magic City" title.
Those were the expectations when this one-time steel center opened the dazzling, $84-million Birmingham Turf Club--the first thoroughbred horse racing track in the heart of Dixie and, Birmingham residents loved to boast, something that Atlanta, their longtime rival to the east, did not have.
But in the four short months since then, dreams of wealth and glory have turned into a nightmare of red ink and civic embarrassment.
Huge crowds and high-stakes bets have yet to materialize. The 330-acre facility, with its seven-level, glass-and-steel grandstand and clubhouse for 20,000 spectators, is losing as much as $100,000 a day.
Neighboring Georgians, Tennesseans and Mississippians are not the only ones staying away. So are many local residents, especially blacks and blue-collar whites.
To avert bankruptcy, purses have been slashed, track employees laid off and salaries of top officials cut or suspended. New racing schedules, more exotic forms of wagering and "giveaway nights" also have been introduced to bolster attendance.
The Alabama Legislature has even reluctantly approved a bill permitting out-of-state investors to pump fresh money into the venture. Current law requires investors to be residents of the state for at least five years as a safeguard against infiltration by organized crime.
Turf Club stock has plummeted from a high of $20 a share on opening day in early March to around $6 a share, and odds against the track's survival are high.
"I'd make us 4 or 5 to 1," said Chick Lang Jr., the Turf Club's marketing director. "We're not a favorite, but we're not a long-shot."
What happened to the Birmingham Turf Club is a vivid reminder of the pitfalls some Southern communities face when they try to vault out of the shadows of the Sun Belt, attempting to shed their past economic base for the promise of an upscale future.
City Left Behind
There is no doubt that Birmingham wanted just that. Once a co-equal with Atlanta as an urban center in the South, Birmingham was left behind during the last three decades as its steel mills lost business and as it became the scene of bitter resistance to the civil rights revolution.
It has since become a regional center for medical education and research, and has attracted high-tech industry, and sparkling new office buildings. But Atlanta, once dubbed "the city too busy to hate," had it all, and Birmingham was clearly second string. The Turf Club, embodying both sophistication and big local revenues, would be a ticket to the top.
The track's problems began with its very name--the Birmingham Turf Club. It has repelled untold numbers of potential black patrons in this majority-black city and elsewhere in the region. To542338933such a title is the traditional white way of connoting: "Private: Whites Only."
But working-class whites also have found little in common with the "champagne-and-mink" atmosphere of the track. As one caustic critic noted after an opening day visit: "The restaurant served food nobody could pronounce and all but drained the French wine country."
Low Daily Attendance
As a result, the average daily attendance is about 5,950--well below the 8,300 originally predicted--and the average daily betting handle of around $406,000 is less than half of the projected $1.1 million.
That means the average bettor wages a total of about $68 a day at the horse track. By comparison, the average gambler spends $141 a day at VictoryLand greyhound racecourse near Montgomery, one of Alabama's three dog tracks.
Barry Mason, chairman of business management and marketing at the University of Alabama, says the Turf Club represents a "classic case of not doing the kind of background work necessary to define the primary market."
"From the beginning, the entire marketing strategy took an elitist, upscale approach, as reflected in such things as the promotional themes and pricing strategy," he explained. "But there's a very narrow market for such an approach in Birmingham, which is basically a blue-collar town, or in the surrounding region, which is largely rural and small town."
Blacks Among Boosters
Oddly, blacks originally were among the racecourse's biggest boosters. A black state legislator introduced the measure that authorized pari-mutuel gambling in the state, and it became law in 1984 with the overwhelming support of black voters.
Local white business leaders, however, formed the investment group that subsequently was chosen by the Birmingham Racing Commission to build and run the track. They also were among the biggest contributors to the drive for the millions of dollars needed to turn the dream into a reality.