01/01/2009 12:00AM

Signs of progress on ambitious project

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Rome wasn't built in a day. The new Gulfstream Park certainly hasn't gone up overnight, either, and at times it has seemed like the ambitious project might take centuries.

And yet the opening of the 2009 Gulfstream meet on Saturday brings this pleasant surprise: buildings, buildings everywhere. When the old grandstand was torn down on June 29, 2004, Gulfstream embarked on a project that was to include a new racetrack; a retail, restaurant, and entertainment mall; and a residential development. Whereas every Gulfstream opening since 2005 has brought incremental changes, racing fans now have far more tangible signs of progress.

Beyond the central gate of the racetrack, a veritable city-in-waiting is being shaped amid a blur of construction. Just days before the meet opening, scores of workers were toiling to bring the $1.2 billion project closer to fruition.

"We're very excited," said Bill Murphy, president and general manager at Gulfstream. "We believe this will become a major destination location in south Florida. Horse racing is always our No. 1 focus, and we believe this will help to give people a look at horse racing who might not otherwise be inclined to come here."

When Frank Stronach, the chairman of track owner Magna Entertainment Corp., first announced plans for a shopping area, construction was supposed to have been completed by now. The plan has since evolved into The Village at Gulfstream Park and is scheduled for an October 2009 completion.

"As far as racetrack projects go, nothing in history comes close to what's going on here," said Bernie Hettel, a senior racing official at Gulfstream. "Obviously it'll take years to determine whether this succeeds or not, but if it does, it'll be the biggest home run."

Gulfstream has been a place in dizzying transition. Virtually every part of this 250-acre tract has been overhauled. A sizable portion of the barn area is new. The dirt and turf tracks were replaced from scratch. The modernized grandstand was built to a far smaller scale than the old one, reflecting the way racing has become more a television game than one that draws huge ontrack crowds. The facility was designed to integrate slots and poker rooms - both legalized in Broward County in recent years - as a glamorous racino.

Now, The Village is being brought to life. Connected to the racing facility by a series of archways and driveways, the shopping area will include about 70 businesses, including a hotel, movie theater, restaurants, sports bar, and high-end shops. Track officials declined to provide the particulars on the makeup of The Village until later in this meet.

"There are a lot of people working very hard on all that," said Murphy.

A recent golf-cart tour of the 55 acres under construction revealed a layout not unlike an outdoor California movie studio. Little more than shells thus far, the buildings are bright, attractive, and well-spaced, exuding an almost fantasyland quality.

For old-school racetrackers who miss the ambience of the old Gulfstream, the past is just that - the past. The airy, sun-splashed Gulfstream that permitted escapes from the harsh northern winter no longer exists, although Murphy said track officials are acutely aware of the need for more casual outdoor seating in and around the racing facility. A big new tiki bar on the north end of the grandstand will partly serve that purpose, but fans looking to have their old Gulfstream back might not be satisfied.

"That's one of our top priorities in terms of the ontrack racing experience," Murphy said. "I know it's been a huge issue for our customers. Once the shopping phase is finished, that will be one of the major areas left for us to still address."

Other unfinished business includes the final development of a residential area on the southwest corner of the property.

"Obviously you're talking a few more years before everything is said and done," Murphy said.

Gulfstream officials said they did not have a firm estimate for when the entire project will be completed.

Clearly the greatest threat to the renovation involves financing, in light of the slumping economy. Magna partnered with Forest City Enterprises in The Village project in October 2005, and since then, both companies have experienced substantial financial troubles. In November, it was announced that Magna, which has incurred some $400 million in losses over the past four years, would be spun off from its parent company, MI Developments. Forest City, a real-estate company based in Cleveland, has seen its stock value plummet from about $45 a share in late 2007 to about $6 in late December 2008.

Magna officials have said financing is in place and secure for completion of The Village phase of the Gulfstream project, but what lies beyond is unclear. Perhaps more ominously, other far-reaching projects involving the companies - notably a massive Forest City project in Brooklyn, N.Y., involving a new arena for the Nets franchise of the National Basketball Association - have been tabled or scrapped entirely.