September 26, 2011 at 4:13 PM

Expo New Mexico Bids for New Casino

"Let there be no doubt that this bid is big business..."

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Expo New Mexico, the corporate name for the New Mexico State Fairgrounds, will likely have a new casino in a couple of years if Governor Susana Martinez’s administration awards a 25-year lease to one of two bidders.

The specifics of the two submitted proposals were revealed in a story by Charles Brunt of the Albuquerque Journal.  The existing operator at the fairgrounds, The Downs at Albuquerque, submitted a bid and so did the Laguna Development Corporation, the business arm of the Laguna Pueblo that currently owns and operates Route 66 and Dancing Eagles casinos west of Albuquerque.

The current lease expires in early 2013 and Expo New Mexico issued a request for proposals (RFP) seeking a private company to lease the current race track and casino area in return for a minimum of $2 million per year.

The Downs at Albuquerque, which began racing operations on the fairgrounds in 1985 and set up the current slot machine operation (table games are not allowed in race track casinos), is offering Expo New Mexico $2 million per year and will build a new $20 million, 52,000-square-foot casino on the south end of the existing racetrack with access from Central Ave. and Louisiana Blvd.  The new facility, which would take up current parking areas, would have two gaming floors, room for 600 slot machines (the maximum allowable and double what it has now), a simulcasting area, a steakhouse, a lounge, a sports bar, a food court and offices.

The Laguna Development Corp. is offering to build a 36,000-square-foot casino structure at the south end of the existing facility that would house 600 slot machines (which would require taking out the existing, old open seating area), a simulcasting area, a bar, a restaurant and an exhibit area.  Laguna’s offer is $2 million in year one; $2.5 million in year two; and, $3 million annually in subsequent years.

Unlike bids where the high or low dollar amounts get the business, an RFP is evaluated and is awarded based on what the evaluators feel is the best interest of the state.  In other words, just because Laguna offered more money doesn’t mean they’ll get the bid.  Laguna knows gaming, but doesn’t have horse racing experience.  The Downs at Albuquerque has gaming and horse racing experience, but their previous front man, Paul Blanchard, was a major supporter of former Governor Bill Richardson.  Blanchard is still a stockholder at the Downs, but he has been conveniently pushed into the background now that there is a new Governor.

The evaluation will be in the hands of three state officials, all appointed by Governor Martinez, and they will make a recommendation for a vote by the State Fair Commission, all appointees of the current governor.

Expo New Mexico, which opened in 1938, is an enterprise agency, meaning it is self supporting (it was for a long time but the state did step in a few years ago and provided some capital funds).  At one time, horse racing paid all the bills but as that industry began its downward spiral, it was the casino that has been the main revenue source.   And while there are at least four major casinos near Albuquerque, all owned by neighboring Indian tribes, no other casino is located in the heart of the biggest metropolitan area in New Mexico.

Let there be no doubt that this bid is big business and is a big decision for the Martinez administration, the impact which will be felt until the year 2038.

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