Hamilton may become place to place a bet

Published: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 1:08 a.m.

JASPER - One of the first jobs Glenn Richards ever had was at a horse-racing track in New Mexico, where he washed dishes in the kitchen and shovel out stalls in the barns.


What is pari-mutuel?

From Dave Roberts, director of the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering: "The term pari-mutuel is from the French language and is a way of saying 'To bet amongst ourselves.' Unlike Las Vegas where you play against the house, in pari-mutuel betting the house has no vested interest. Instead, you are playing against the other customers and only the other customers. You put your money into a pool of money and bet that a certain player or team will win."

"Since then, I have always wanted to own my own track, and I always said someday if I had the money, that is what I would do," Richards said this week, hours after filing the paperwork with the state that could put a pari-mutuel wagering facility and quarter-horse track in the middle of Hamilton County.

Richards, along with his wife, Jodie Richards, brother Jerry Richards and a few other minor partners, formed Richmond Entertainment Inc. On Wednesday, the corporation applied to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering for a permit to conduct pari-mutuel wagering at a jai-alai facility on 220 acres off U.S. 129 at Interstate 75.

Richards said he plans to build a facility that would house a jai-alai fronton and simulcasts of horse-and-dog races from tracks around the state.

Long-term plans include adding a card room for limited stakes betting, developing a track for quarter-horse racing and building a facility where thoroughbreds could be housed.

Hamilton County Sheriff Harrell Reid is taking a wait-and-see approach to the proposal, a position several other residents also said they were adopting until they had more information.

"I have not explored this with any other counties that already have jai alai, and I don't know that it's necessary at this point to check into that," Reid said. "I want to see what the possibilities are and whether this will become a reality or not. As a general rule, I am opposed to legalized gambling, but that's my personal opinion."

Some other county residents see the proposal as a financial boon for one of Florida's smallest and poorest counties. Hamilton's per capita income of $14,214 among its 13,327 residents is nearly the lowest in the state and nearly half the state per capita income of $27,764.

"This is the kind of project that could really be a boost for Hamilton County, where we have an unemployment rate of more than 6 percent," said Bob Poor, director for Tourism and Economic Development. "A few years ago when PCS Phosphate laid off 60 percent of its workers, the light went out for many people. We need to have other jobs available here."

What Richards is proposing would provide at least 50 full-time and 30 part-time jobs with hourly pay rates of $10 and more. A few hundred other jobs are expected to be created by the development of restaurants, hotels and shopping areas nearby to support the anticipated influx of tourists. County officials estimated the property taxes for the multimillion project would be at least $300,000 a year.

Richards has been developing and building homes and commercial projects in the Jacksonville area and building communications towers around the state. When his company put up a tower last year next to the site where a new high school (the first new school to be built in Hamilton County since 1968) is under construction, Richards said he quickly recognized the county's ideal location.

"This is only 30 minutes from Georgia and 3 or four hours from the south side of Atlanta," Richards said. "It's right on the freeway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee."

Whether county residents want the entertainment center will be determined within a few months, according to Dave Roberts, director of the state wagering division.

"This is the first application of this kind we have had in at least five years because there are very few places left in Florida that are unimpeded by the mileage and territory regulations from the other facilities," Roberts said. State laws require various distance separations between horse tracks, frontons and other places where there is wagering.

He said his office must finish a background investigation for each of the principals involved during the next 60 to 90 days.

"That is to find out what kind of standing the co-financiers are in and make sure they are a stable commodity and everybody is on the up and up," Roberts said.

Roberts said that if his agency finds no problems in the background investigations and approves the application, Richards must ask the County Commission to set a special election so voters can decide whether the center is something they want. Richards would be responsible for paying for the election.

Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com.

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