November 23, 2011 at 2:02 PM

State Fair Commission OKs New Casino Deal

"The Nov. 21 action by the State Fair Commission was unexpected"

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The New Mexico State Fair Commission voted 4-3 to approve a controversial 25-year lease to the current racino operators that calls for construction of a new casino and guaranteed revenue of at least $2 million per year.

The Downs at Albuquerque is the entity that currently operates the racetrack and casino (racino) and was one of two bidders that responded to the State Fair’s request for proposals (RFP).   The Downs at Albuquerque was originally owned by Ken Newton, the former operator of the Downs at Santa Fe.  The current owners are former Downs’s president Paul Blanchard and Louisiana businessmen Bill Windham and John S. Turner.

The New Mexico State Fair, also called Expo New Mexico, is an “enterprise” state agency located in Albuquerque since 1938.   It is supposed to be self-sufficient and receives no operating funds from the state.   It is administratively attached to the Department of Tourism and the seven-member commission is appointed by the governor. 

The commission’s actions will require the approval of the State Board of Finance which includes Governor Susana Martinez, the Lt. Governor, the State Treasurer and four members appointed by the Governor.  The board will be minus one member, however.  Tom Tinnin of Albuquerque, a Martinez appointee and a former member of the State Fair Commission under Gary Johnson, resigned over the controversy.

The Nov. 21 action by the State Fair Commission was unexpected.   The process had come under scrutiny from legislators who represented the neighborhoods surrounding the fairgrounds and in light of negative news reports citing audits that showed the current operators owed the State Fair tens of thousands of dollars as well as stories indicating the fair was bleeding red ink. 

There were also those who expressed concern at what they called the lack of openness in the process.  The Laguna Corporation, the only other entity to respond to the RFP, wrote in an op-ed piece that they felt they had not been given due consideration.  And, it was revealed that the Downs at Albuquerque had given a large campaign donation to the Susanna Martinez for Governor campaign.

Prior to the Nov. 21 meeting, some State Fair commission members had expressed concern that they were being asked to rubber stamp the recommendation of a three-person review committee appointed by the governor.  Action was delayed and the Nov. 21 meeting was advertised as a work session.  But, at the Nov. 21 meeting a motion was made calling for the vote and it passed 4-3.

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), offered 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 Avenue and Louisiana Boulevard. 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, steakhouse, lounge, sports bar, food court and offices.

The New Mexico State Fair is a wonderful tradition in New Mexico but declining attendance and revenues has prompted some to question whether the fair as we know it should continue and whether it should stay at its current location.

What the Martinez administration has in mind for making the annual event better and increasing revenues remains to be seen.  But, it’s not going anywhere, at least for the next 25 years.

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