Voters in the northern Solano County city of Dixon will decide in April on a project that could change the nature of town: A horse racing track and entertainment center capable of handling events for up to 50,000 people, plus more than 1 million square feet of hotel, entertainment, retail and office development.

Dixon Downs would be the first major horse racing facility built in California since the 1940s, and proponents envision the facility becoming one of the nation's best. City officials have endorsed the project, saying it will bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to town, and will spur further development in a dusty, lightly developed corner of town.

But opponents � who forced a referendum election on the project � say the project is simply too much for the town of about 17,500 people. They worry not only about traffic and noise from the facility, but about the social implications of gambling.

"It's really not a fit for this little town. It would be a big change," said Gail Preston, a leader of Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth, which organized the referendum.

Founded in about 1870, Dixon was an agricultural town for more than a century. More recently, the city has become more of a bedroom community for workers at the nearby University of California, Davis, and for commuters to Sacramento and even the Bay Area. Located on Interstate 80 on the edge of the Central Valley, Dixon has seen its population double over the last 20 years.

The City Council approved Dixon Downs on a 4-1 vote in October 2006 after about six years of planning, negotiations and study. Magna Entertainment Corporation, a horse track operator based in Ontario, Canada, first approached city officials in 2000 with an eye on a portion of Dixon's 640-acre Northeast Quadrant specific plan, which calls for highway commercial, industrial and office uses.

"It was pretty clear from the outset in terms of size and complexity � it was not going to be a typical land use entitlement process," recalled City Manager Warren Salmons. "It took a couple of years to evolve the entire complex. It's an entertainment, retail, mixed-used project."

Magna's proposal calls for a two-phase project. The first phase would contain the track, a grandstand and pavilion, barns and training facilities for up to 1,400 horses, and temporary living quarters for trainers, grooms and jockeys. The second phase would have a conference center and hotel, 750,000 square feet of retail development, and up to 200,000 square feet of offices. The race track and pavilion could be used not only for horse racing, but also for concerts and festivals. There could be an unlimited number of "tier 1" events for up to 6,800 people. "Tier 2" events for 6,800 to 15,000 people would be limited to 25 per year, and there could be one event each year for up to 50,000 people.

A fiscal and economic analysis prepared for the city by Goodwin Consulting Group of Sacramento found that the Dixon Downs project at full build-out would provide about 2,900 jobs and spin off another 600 jobs. Those are big numbers in a city that currently has about 5,300 jobs, but development of the site under the original specific plan would actually create more employment: about 4,100 direct jobs plus another 1,500 spin off jobs. In addition, jobs under the previous plan would be higher paying because of the heavy emphasis on light industrial uses. However, Goodwin estimated that Dixon Downs would build out in 15 years, while development of the original specific plan for the site would take twice as long. Salmons noted that in 12 years, the only significant project built in the specific plan area is a Wal-Mart store.

The Goodwin study also estimated that Dixon Downs would result in an extra $3 million in city revenues � about 10 times the amount produced by light industrial and office development.

Project opponents do not believe the numbers, in part because they doubt large retail components will get built. Preston noted that Vacaville, only a few miles away, already provides regional retail outlets and more is planned. "We think it's a farce," he said, citing the Goodwin study's conclusion that development under the original plan would be economically superior.

Preston also expressed concerns about the social implications of gambling, such as gambling addiction and crime. Plus, although there would be only about 100 horse meets a year, "a 5,000-stool bar" would be open all year, he said.

Indeed, the pavilion would provide for off-track betting. Opponents also fear Magna will bring slot machines to the facility, although slots are not contemplated in the approved project. For years, horse track operators, including Magna, have pressed the state hard for approval of slots.

Dixon Mayor Mary Ann Courville said opponents' concerns are overstated. She, other city officials and some members of the public toured other Magna tracks, including Golden Gate Fields in Albany, and came away very impressed.

"People were there enjoying the day � families and kids," Courville said.

Courville foresees the horse track putting Dixon's name on the map nationally and even internationally when big-time races are broadcast worldwide.

Salmons, a former planner in Petaluma and Vallejo, said the Dixon Downs project would jump-start the infrastructure in the larger specific plan area and serve as a catalyst for more development.

Of course, all this development will generate a great deal of traffic on both I-80 and nearby roads. The Dixon Downs environmental impact report identifies traffic and air quality as areas that will suffer significant, unmitigated impacts.

In November, the City of Davis and a tomato canning business in Dixon sued the city over traffic. Davis officials contend the EIR does not acknowledge that I-80 would be at a total gridlock before and after large events at Dixon Downs, forcing motorists onto city streets.

"Dixon would receive all the revenue benefits from Dixon Downs, while the costs would be spread to nearby cities and unincorporated areas," Davis City Attorney Harriet Steiner said.

The four referendums will appear during a special election April 17. The measures individually address the general plan amendment, specific plan amendment, rezoning and development agreement. If voters reject the project, said Salmons, "the community will go on. It will be a different future."


Warren Salmons, City of Dixon, (707) 678-7000.

Dixon Downs project website:

Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth: