07/23/2004 12:00AM

Slots approved by one vote


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The Vancouver City Council late Thursday gave approval to Hastings Entertainment's application to operate 600 slot machines at the track. The 6-5 vote came after four days of public hearings and debate, and clears the way to move the track's slots application to the next level, the development permit process, which could take more than six months.

In the development permit process, Hastings will present the plans for its slots area to the city council. The track will also have to alleviate concerns about parking, security, crime, and other social issues that came up during this week's marathon hearings - one session lasted until 2:30 a.m.

In addition to the 23 hours of public hearings that were held this week, the council debated the issue for more than two hours before making its final decision. Mayor Larry Campbell broke the 5-5 tie with the deciding vote.

"We're pleased with the city council's decision to move forward with slot machines and save the racetrack," said Bruno Wall, a board member of Hastings Entertainment and front man during the public hearing process. "The introduction of slot machines will preserve Vancouver's horse racing heritage, protect hundreds of jobs, and create a sustainable and competitive horse racing industry in British Columbia."

It could be the fall of 2005 until slots are up and running. Purses are expected to double from the roughly $135,000 that Hastings currently pays out during a 10-race card. More racing days will likely be added to next year's schedule, according to track management. Due to a shortage of horses, Hastings now only races Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. This year, 71 racing days are scheduled.

Hastings, which has been in a steady decline the last 10 years, was purchased by the Great Canadian Casino Corporation and Peter Wall for $20 million in April. The previous owners, Woodbine Entertainment Group, had made the initial slots application in 2003, but cited difficulties working with both the provincial and municipal governments, and opted to sell the track to its current owners. Woodbine purchased Hastings in May 2002.

In its application to the city, Hastings committed $45 million towards capital improvements. The Hastings barn area, which badly needs upgrading, will be one of the areas where the money is focused.

"The council's decision was a vote of confidence not only for Hastings Racecourse but also for 10,500 industry jobs throughout B.C. that depend on horse racing at the track," said Mel Snow, president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.