Former East Bay Democratic Assemblymember Dion Aroner has become a lobbyist for a Canadian racing track firm which has teamed up with powerful Los Angeles developer and Republican Rick Caruso, intensifying their push for a massive “theme” mall on the Albany waterfront.
The chosen site is a disused 45-acre parking lot at Golden Gate Fields, where crowds have dwindled to a small fraction of avid racing fans who once thronged the track.
Caruso, who is planning a 600,000- to 800,000-square-foot upscale megaplex, is working with Magna Entertainment, the Canadian owner that also controls the largest share of the nation’s horse racing venues.
Aroner formally represents Golden Gate Fields, but has been actively urging Albany officials and environmental groups to meet with Caruso, a well connected Republican who is pals with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and raised large sums for the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, entitling him to the official status of “Bush Ranger.”
“I was sorely disappointed when I heard that Dion Aroner was willing to work for Magna,” said Robert Cheasty, a former Albany mayor and a leading East bay environmental activist.
Aroner said her firm was hired to do “public outreach and listening” for the track. Just what that entails, she isn’t saying because it would involve disclosing details of the contract. She said Caruso wasn’t involved when she started working for the track, and that she’s been asking Albany officials to meet with the Los Angeles developer only because he’s partnered with Magna.
After losing her seat to term limits, Aroner and two associates founded a lobbying firm, AJE Partners, with offices at 1803 Sixth St. in Berkeley. She was replaced in the legislature by Loni Hancock, who is Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates’ spouse.
Before serving in the legislature, Aroner served on Bates’s staff before he too reached the end of his term limit in the Assembly.
The mall move represents the latest evolution in the declining fortunes of the “Sport of Kings,” as horse racing is known. Once a major attraction for throngs of racing fans, the track has fallen onto hard times.
Off-track betting has claimed much of the audience in other states, as races are captured on satellite video feeds and broadcast to betting parlors and other racetracks.
Then there are casinos.
A study completed in January by LECG, Inc., the high-priced legal and economic consulting firm in Emeryville headed by UC Berkeley Haas School of Business Professor David W. Teece, predicts the end of both Golden Gates Fields and the Bay Meadows track should the proposed 2,500-slot machine San Pablo casino ever open.
The LECG study says that Golden Gate would close first, as the track’s estimated return of 3.5 percent on wagers fell to a minus 1.9 percent.
The casino opening would slash profits at Bay Meadows from 3.5 percent to 0.4 percent, and profits would drop to a minus 9.2 percent once Golden Gates Fields closed, reports the study by LECG Director William Hamm and principals Ronald M. Schmidt and Richard Siegel.
Closure of both tracks would end 80 percent of the racing season in the region, reports LECG. The remaining 20 percent represents the much shorter racing calendars of North California’s county fair circuit.
Both tracks are owned by Magna, which has also teamed with Caruso to develop a similar mall project at their Santa Anita track in Southern California, modeled after the French Quarter in New Orleans.
There is currently no sign that Santa Anita is as badly afflicted as its Northern California counterparts, and construction plans there also include new barns for the racing stock.
Cheasty, as an attorney and environmentalist who serves as president of Citizens for Eastshore Parks, along with the Sierra Club and other environmentalists want the track site transformed into a shoreline park, while allowing for a smaller project inland near the casino.
Magna, other racing interests and California card clubs—when players bet against each other and not the house—floated a statewide initiative last November that would have granted those venues the right to add slot machines to their gambling fare.
The measure went down to decisive defeat.
Magna has one ace in the hole, a video track slated to arise in Yolo County specifically designed for the video camera coverage required for OTB betting.
The Magna/Caruso plans have provoked strong opposition from some members of the Albany City Council and the Chamber of Commerce, notably from Councilmember Robert Leiber.
The Albany Council remains divided on the shopping center issue, with the three candidates endorsed by the Sierra Club—Leiber, Farid Javandel and Mayor Robert Good—opposed to the project, and Vice Mayor Allan Maris and Councilmember Jewel Okawashi expressing willingness to consider the Caruso/Magna proposal.
Former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook has been deeply involved in lobbying for the project, said Cheasty and Lieber. He handled media relations for Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn. Middlebrook resigned from Hahn’s staff to take the job as a senior vice president of Fleischmann-Hilliard, one of the nation’s most powerful public relations and lobbying firms. He heads their operations in the Bay Area.
According to a Dec. 1 profile in the Los Angeles Times, Caruso is a successful entrepreneur, a man who wears $6,000 suits and lives in a 20,000-square-foot home in tony Brentwood, where he, his spouse and their four children are tended to by a staff of 10.
He is a friend of Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who went after Bill Clinton, and a major backer of Hahn, running for reelection in today’s (Tuesday’s) Los Angeles mayoral contest.ª