10/26/2012 12:14PM

Fort Erie: Thibert trying to save track a second time


FORT ERIE, Ontario – Jim Thibert, chief executive officer of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, has faced many challenges during his career in business and economic development. For the last 11 years, he used his skills to benefit the town of Fort Erie.

A particularly difficult situation came in 2009 when the Fort Erie Racetrack was destined to close at the end of the racing season as the owner, Nordic Gaming, could no longer sustain the losses that were occurring year after year. Action was needed to keep the 115-year-old track up and running, but the options open were limited.

“Five years ago, we knew that our racetrack, the centerpiece of the town of Fort Erie, was in serious trouble.” said the 59-year-old Thibert, who also is the general manager of the Fort Erie Economic and Tourism Corporation. “The owner, Nordic Gaming, advised that they could no longer sustain the annual losses.

“To make a long story short, we developed a plan to lease the track from Nordic Gaming for three years. We teamed up with Nordic, our horsemen, the town, and the government to make it happen. In addition, we had all the financials reviewed by Deloitte and Touche.

“There were many hoops to jump through, as one can well imagine, but our plan became reality and resulted in three additional successful seasons.”

This past March, Ontario’s provincial government shocked the horse racing industry by stating that previous agreements for sharing revenue from the racetrack slots program would cease.

“At the time of the announcement,” said Thibert, “we had just finished putting on the final touches on a new business plan for continuing operations.”

The loss of the track’s slot casino on April 30 left the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium with few options but to announce that the track would close on Dec. 31. The June closing announcement was made necessary by provincial regulations regarding layoff notices to employees.

“We are not giving up or giving in,” Thibert said. “We have put forward a series of proposals to the government’s three-man review board,” which has submitted recommendations for transitional funding for the racing industry following the demise of the slots program.

“In addition, we are working with Nordic Gaming and with other parties that have expressed an interest in the purchase of the track and its surrounding property.

“When and if the sale is successful, it is understood that the owner would willingly commit to a live race program.

While Thibert is hopeful a new owner for the track can be found, he is realistic about Fort Erie’s chances of racing in 2013.

“In my opinion, the odds of us racing next year are in the 50-50 region,” Thibert said. “I am not about to give up on this track, nor on the trainers, grooms, exercise riders, jockeys, mutuel clerks, staff and all the other personnel that rely on this operation for their livelihood. I will evaluate every means possible to keep this track in business.

“From a personal standpoint, I feel obligated to think positive and battle against any and every action that goes against this town, its people, and this beautiful racetrack.”