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California and the West

Town Divided Over Proposed Racetrack

Land use: Owner of Santa Anita wants to bring racing to Dixon. Many welcome the jobs, but some fear loss of small-town charm.


DIXON, Calif. — For generations this was a farm town, plain and simple, basking under big shade trees in the Central Valley heat. Lately, it has grown subdivisions faster than crops, becoming a bedroom community for nearby Sacramento.

But now the small city of 15,000 is wrestling over the prospects and pitfalls of joining horse racing's future.

Frank Stronach, an Austrian-born billionaire who made his fortune in auto parts but lives for the thoroughbreds, recently proposed a 21st century racetrack and entertainment complex for 225 acres of corn and safflower fields on Dixon's northern edge. Stronach wants to draw patrons to concerts, rodeos and restaurants--and keep horse racing alive in the process.

Residents have been abuzz ever since the tycoon stepped into town.

In a city where workers outnumber jobs by a wide margin, many within Dixon's old guard establishment opened their arms to the possibility, seeing the horse racing complex as a potential boon for municipal coffers and employment rolls.

"Any time somebody comes in and wants to invest $80 million in your community, it bears looking at," Mayor Don Erickson said. "If you're going to have progress, it's going to involve change, and to get through that you sometimes have some anger."

But a testy band of residents has begun to organize against the project--many of them big-city professionals and other newcomers who want to preserve the community's character.

They grumble that the complex would snarl traffic for commuters hurrying to Interstate 80 and jobs in Sacramento, 20 miles to the east. City services such as police and fire protection would be drained, they say, and business in Dixon's antique and sleepy downtown would fade. They also worry that the complex could bring a bad element to Dixon, boosting crime and other urban ills.

But mostly, they fear the intangible, the possibility that so big and blustery an undertaking could undermine the small-town charm that has survived Dixon's transformation into a community orbiting on the urban edge.

"Dixon would be easy to ruin with the wrong type of development," said Jeanne Kluge, an attorney raising a family in one of the city's new subdivisions. "This seems like putting an atom bomb in the middle of town."

Stronach, who was on business in Europe and unavailable for comment, is chief of Toronto-based Magna International Inc., the world's largest maker of auto parts, with 164 manufacturing plants and 54,000 employees. He also is one of North America's most successful horsemen, with a trio of barns and about 1,000 thoroughbreds in training.

His entertainment group, a spinoff of the auto parts empire, has quickly become one of the top players as the horse racing industry grapples to reinvent itself after decades of declining attendance.

Magna Entertainment owns more than a half-dozen tracks, including Santa Anita in Arcadia and Golden Gate Fields just across the bridge from San Francisco. Stronach's tracks accounted for 23% of all betting on thoroughbreds in the United States last year, and his empire could grow with plans for several more new tracks and a $5-million commitment to launch an interactive parimutuel wagering system tapping TV and the Internet.

The most recent acquisition by Magna was Bay Meadows in the Bay Area city of San Mateo. But the track came with a catch--Magna can operate in San Mateo only through 2002, when the landowner plans to uproot the whole works to make way for a Silicon Valley office complex.

Enter Dixon. Situated along the busy Interstate 80 freeway, the little city seems to Magna officials an ideal site for a track. Not only is sports-crazy Sacramento just up the freeway, but the Bay Area's booming eastern suburbs are less than an hour away.

Magna officials negotiated to purchase a big parcel near a freeway interchange, then approached city officials with a loosely defined proposal for horse racing and entertainment.

Stronach rolled into City Hall in late July, doffing his business suit for casual clothes and describing himself as a farmer. The billionaire told the City Council he wants a "win-win situation" with the city. If residents "decide they don't want us here," he said, "we can go somewhere else."

Dixon's civic leaders liked what they saw enough to accept $50,000 from Magna to study the project.

To date, the details remain sketchy. Stronach and other Magna officials have talked of a 1 1/8-mile main course, a 1-mile turf track and enough barn space for 2,000 horses.

The Dixon facility might seat about 7,000--about a third as many as some older tracks. Magna officials also are toying with the possibility of restaurants, a 5,000-seat auditorium and show grounds that might attract everything from rodeos to concerts and entertainment acts.

"We'd like to draw all types of people from all walks of life," said Ron Volkman, a Magna director. In the process, the daily gate at the track could get a boost.

"We're treading very carefully," he said. "We want to work with everyone."

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