After years of debate, Missoula county officials have decided the fate of the racetrack on the Western Montana Fairgrounds.
Wednesday afternoon county commissioners approved a five-year development and maintenance plan for the fairgrounds, but the plan doesn’t include horse racing.
Not everyone one supports the decision.
Dale Mahlum, chair of the Montana Board of Horse Racing, says it would be a shame to replace Missoula's nearly 100-year-old horse track with a multi-event center.
“If we're going to lose the racetrack than what are we going to lose next?” he said. “Are we going to lose the rodeo too? What's going to happen to us? We are an agricultural community here.”
Montana House Representative Kimberly Dudik says horse racing is important and she feels it can still draw a crowd.
“There are not many of these racetracks left in our state and I don't see that it serves the people of our city well to do away with it,” said Dudik. “For what? Just to have another dime-a-dozen event center put up there?”
Others added that offering horse racing is one thing that sets Montana apart from other states.
Missoula resident Cindy Johnson told commissioners she has spent many summers working the ticket booth at the fair and says numerous out-of-towners have told her they come just to see horse racing.
“There are people that would come to my window from out-of-state who plan their vacation here every year to come to the fair to go to the horse racing,” she said. “Last year we didn’t have it for the five days and they said they wouldn't come back.”
But county commissioners said the horse track simply doesn't bring enough money to the local economy.
“If it was a viable thing there would be tracks all over the place,” said Jean Curtiss, a Missoula County Commissioner. “This is not unique to Missoula County and actually the viability of horse racing across the country is in question.”
Harvey Hergett, president of the Missoula Youth Area Hockey Association, says he thinks a multi-event center would better serve the community.
“I've heard a lot that horse racing brings a lot of economy into the community but I think it's a fairly short lived economic boost,” he said. “The idea of a multi-use events center that could house some of these things would be a year round boost to the economy in Missoula.”
But for Mahlum, it wasn't just the horse track he wanted to keep but its heritage he says, that he was hoping to pass on.
“As I grow older -- and I'm getting older -- I want to make sure that my kids and my grandkids have an opportunity to come to the fair and see what it has been,” said Mahlum.
Though the county will not accept any offers for horse racing events, commissioners tell us there are no immediate plans to demolish the track, but that may change as overall fairgrounds development plans move along.