09/29/2004 11:00PM

Developer advocating new track

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - A real estate developer is working with the city of Nashua, N.H., to build a $100 million retail and entertainment center anchored by a racetrack on land near the Massachusetts border.

The idea of bringing a new track into the New England region after a steady decline of Thoroughbred racing here seems strange to industry insiders, including Ed Callahan, the general manager of Rockingham Park, which gave up the sport two years ago in favor of harness racing.

"I think they'll have as much chance as the folks at Birmingham Race Course and Garden State Park and a few other places I could think of that tried to build expensive new racetracks." said Callahan. "It is very early yet, and we need to see what the proposal really is before we worry too much about it."

The plan is being pushed by Kurt Sanborn and Winner's Circle Development Ventures, which has been involved in similar plans centered around minor league baseball parks, including one in Manchester, N.H. While Sanborn has not yet publicly identified the investors, the preliminary discussions have stirred interest from Nashua's mayor, Bernie Streeter.

"There are some steps that must be made environmentally and within the nearby neighborhood, but with the loss of high-tech companies around here, I don't see any other kind of development coming into that part of the city within the next 10 years," said Streeter. "Mr. Sanborn seems intent on creating something upscale and classy. We're fans of the atmosphere in Saratoga. It's a destination that's all about horse racing. We want to create that same feeling with this."

Some industry observers question the wisdom of building a new racetrack in a region where two huge Native American casinos have attracted millions of New England gambling dollars and where bordering states have been resistant to expand gaming at their established tracks.

Streeter, though, said he doesn't see this as a step toward an eventual casino. He said there has been "no discussion" to date about video lottery terminals or other slot machines.

"It's a question that comes up every two years at the State House," said Streeter, "and so far, despite the state's gloomy financial situation, they haven't approved them yet. I don't see anything on the horizon to indicate that has changed."

Both the mayor and the developers acknowledge that the actual racing of horses at what would be a 1 1/4-mile track is a long way off. Nearby residents are already calling for public hearings. Streeter and the developers say it could be up to two years before ground is broken.