Gambling venture in Grants Pass comes under fire from tribes

Travis Boersma has a plan to make Grants Pass Downs, a racetrack he attended as a child, the epicenter of Oregon horse racing.

“I have some of my fondest memories of horse racing,” said Boersma. “The sport itself and the community that would come out.”

Boersma is one of the founders of Dutch Bros coffee, which recently went public, making it the state’s newest billionaire. He also owns Grants Pass Downs and the Flying Lark, the adjacent entertainment complex.

But there’s a problem: His plan is subject to state approval of 225 gambling terminals known as Historical Horse Racing or HHR terminals. Approval for those games is currently being delayed as state officials consider complaints filed by some of Oregon’s tribal governments. Tribal members say the games would illegally cut their casino revenues.

Boersma said the machines are needed to supplement the prizes for horse race winners.

“It’s to support and grow purses for the riders, not just to compete and have a way of life, but to grow the sport and do really great things – to breeding, to equestrian, on the agricultural side – to breathe new life into some of the smaller circuits,” says Boersma.

The HHR terminals are in a kind of gray area. To the user, they look and feel like slot machines, something Boersma does not dispute. On the back, however, the machines use something called parimutuel betting, which means that the users bet against each other instead of the house.

However, a report commissioned by the tribes ECONorthwest found that newer versions of HHR machines have blurred this distinction.

According to Boersma, this is simply a matter of normal technological improvement over time.

“An iPhone 13 is much more attractive than the original iPhone,” says Boersma. “So while it serves the same purpose, it can do it much better or be more appealing or appealing to the end user.”

Boersma also argued that before Portland Meadows Racetrack closed, that facility had 150 HHR terminals.

“All we ask is permission to do what Portland Meadows has done,” he said.

Justin Martin, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and the manager of the Oregon Tribal Gaming Alliance, says the analogy doesn’t hold.

“[The machines at Portland Meadows] were real horse races on a machine in a closet that I watched and played,” Martin said. “The reality is that technology has become so advanced that you can’t tell the difference between a Historical Horse Race machine playing the same game that’s offered in a casino environment versus those games back then, which were completely different.”

Martin also argued that HHR machines made horse racing at Portland Meadows unviable.

“We want to see the horse racing industry thrive,” said Martin. “We just think there are other ways to go about that.”

The same ECONorthwest study found that HHR terminals at the Flying Lark would not attract new gamblers.

“It will belong to the lottery merchants and patrons of tribal casinos,” said Alicia McAuley, the executive director of Cow Creek Gaming and Regulatory Commission. “All the jobs created will come at the expense of other jobs and ultimately other local businesses, and they won’t be new.”

Boersma said his own economic impact study showed the Flying Lark could create up to 2,000 jobs and bring in up to $10 billion in revenue for Josephine County.

Earlier this month, however, the Flying Lark announced that they would lay off 226 people by the end of February. Boersma said it breaks his heart, but the facility cannot operate without the HHR gambling terminals.

Martin said he thinks it’s time for the state legislature to re-evaluate how gambling is regulated in Oregon.

“We want to set up a joint committee,” Martin said. “We want everyone – including Grants Pass Downs, The Flying Lark, responsible gaming advocates – to sit in one room or before a legislative body and do it right.”

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