Property-Focused Stronger Together

Published: May 19, 2021 11:25 am EDT

Woodbine Entertainment hosted a Stronger Together event via livestream on Wednesday (May 19), where CEO Jim Lawson spoke about and took questions on the development and future of the Woodbine property in Rexdale, Ont.

At the start of the session, Lawson provided an update on the state of racing in the province, which has been shut down since April due to a spike in coronavirus cases. The stay-at-home order set to expire on April 28 was then extended through May 20. Woodbine Entertainment, said Lawson, has been communicating with the local administrations to try and bring racing back as soon as possible.

“We continue to be concerned and frustrated,” Lawson said of the continued shutdown. “We’ve had very good and constructive conversations with Toronto Public Health – they’ve been great. The premier’s office have been supportive and great. But there is, seemingly, a very difficult hurdle with the Provincial Ministry of Health, and quite frankly I just don’t understand it. This is not from a lack of trying. I know people see what goes on on social media, but that’s a small portion of what’s going on in the background. We delivered [the Ministry of Health] another extensive package last week, and we’ve had no dialogue whatsoever. It’s been extremely frustrating and I’m growing increasingly concerned that they just don’t get it or they don’t care to get it – the risk profile for racing. As I’ve said, the risk profile between training, which they do permit, and racing, which they don’t permit; and I continue to be baffled by that distinction, as does everyone in the industry.

“I know people are frustrated,” Lawson also said. “But it’s not from a lack of trying and not from a lack of talking to the right people, but seemingly a Ministry of Health that is not working with us and not caring to work with us. We’re trying to change that, and we need to change that quickly. As these restrictions get eased, we need to make sure horse racing is in the mix. So I’m expecting and hoping that when people can get out and golf – which I hope that they can do – that we can get out and race. That’s our position, and we are pushing that hard. And by all means, people need to join into this battle.”

Lawson then began to talk about Woodbine’s plans for developing its large property into an arena with a goal of turning horse racing into a self-sustaining industry.

“We’re sitting on the largest parcel of undeveloped land in the Greater Toronto Area – almost 700 acres of land,” Lawson said. “Certainly there’s been a catalyst that has helped, which is the casino expansion and the two hotels and the music center that’s coming. What that has afforded us the opportunity to do in the first instance is to make an argument that this is an area that’s growing. As many of you have seen, the area of Woodbine is larger than all of Downtown Toronto combined. And it’s an opportunity that is presenting itself particularly with respect to mass transit, and the mass transit argument ties directly into the casino expansion and the music center and the hotels and, of course, the Woodbine Racetrack sitting in the center of it.

“We need to do something to be self-sustaining,” Lawson also said. “And change is hard, but there’s not question that we’re staring at a wonderful asset that we’re blessed with, that we need to do something with in order to sustain this industry for generations. That’s what it’s all about – we’re not doing this because we think we’re real estate developers, we’re not doing it for profits for shareholders because we don’t have any shareholders. We’re doing this for one reason only and that’s to sustain racing. We will generate income. In an ideal world, we’ll be leasing the land – we may have to sell some of the land because a lot of the master plan contains residential [areas], so we may be delving into residential condominiums and townhouses which may be freehold as opposed to leasehold. Secondly, if we can develop this, it’s going to put horse racing at center ice of a huge community. Picture Downtown with 30,000 housing units surrounding the racetrack with retail, commercial, with people living there, and at center ice of all of it sits the racetrack. It will be great for racing; it will make it a vibrant horse racing community. It’s an exciting vision.”

Given the fiscal damage the pandemic has wrought into casino revenues and on-track pari-mutuel revenues with facilities shut down, the focus of Woodbine’s vision is to create infrastructure that simplifies and promotes the flow of people into the racetrack. Woodbine aims to achieve this through the construction of a GO Train station beginning in Fall 2021. The rail, which is slated for open by 2026, would run along the Kitchener-Waterloo line, providing both a route to Pearson International Airport as well as a 15-minute connection to Union Station.

The proposed rail line including the GO Station at Woodbine (credit: Woodbine)

The GO Train is just a small part of an overall 25- to 35-year project soon to be proposed to the City of Toronto, said Lawson. Development of the land is divided into five phases, each over the course of five years. In phase one, to accommodate the GO Station, the training track will be relocated from the backstretch to the west of the grandstand. Part of the training track and barn area, in phase two, will be utilized for affordable workforce housing. Phase three will include the construction of new barns inside of the training track, with their completion coming in phase four.

“We are going to lose some barn areas. Our obvious undertaking is to make sure we have adequate stalls,” Lawson said. “I think the minimum we'll ever go down to is around 1,700, and it will be commensurate with demand. We've got an opportunity to build more barns. Again, this is a few years off so lots can change, but it is exciting. The same with housing – our dorms are going to have to move at some point, and we're not sure exactly how we're going to accommodate. [We'll] either build new dorms up in that area adjacent to the track, or potentially have an area of our new housing projects designated for our people.”

The five-phase layout of Woodbine's property development (credit: Woodbine)

For the contracting, Woodbine has hired Populous to develop the land. The company has designed facilities at other tracks including Ascot in England, Sha Tin in Hong Kong and are currently working with Stronach Group tracks Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.

“Horse racing is what Populous does in terms of planning a racetrack community and making it work efficiently,” Lawson said. “It’s just an example – and people should understand this – that we’ve put horse racing at the forefront. It’s an exciting vision and an exciting project, and it’s really starting to crystallize. That’s why we wanted to come to the horse community today before we present it to the city, and let people ask questions and quell any rumors that the whole Woodbine property is being sold for development purposes.”

Lawson emphasized, in the Q&A session, that input from horsepeople is paramount for the development of Woodbine’s land when it comes to the layout of everyday facilities on track such as tack rooms.

“Horsepeople will be consulted, and we’re dealing with a company that understands this and understands the input that horsepeople are valuable,” Lawson said. “I don’t have any hesitation in saying that horsepeople will be consulted on the location and configuration of tack rooms and the like.”

Another development Lawson noted in the Q&A session is the possible upgrade of the racetrack’s grandstand.

“Grandstand refurbishments, we’re going to continue to look at improvements. It’s a tired, old building. It’s 660,000 square feet, it’s been around since 1956 I believe, and we are going to be doing some upgrades. But it has to be very focused and make sure it gets used because we have to be careful in terms of our capital expenditures. It’s going to require getting a lot more people out to the racetrack, and this real estate development is likely to help that. We just have to do the prudent thing, but we recognize that we want to make it a comfortable spot for our guests and our customers, and we’re working on plans to refurbish certain portions of the grandstand.”

The full session is available below;