Monterey Downs

The Monterey Downs proposal includes a horse racing track, but also a separate component called "Monterey Horse Park," which would give local horse enthusiasts a multi-arena venue for shows and practice. 

Monterey Downs, the proposed mega-development and horse track in the former Fort Ord—which would be built on 550 acres of virgin oak wildlands—took a tiny step forward last night in a Seaside City Council meeting that brought more questions than answers. 

During a three-hour discussion by the council and much public comment, the council approved a one-year extension of an exclusive negotiating agreement with Downs developers, and later voted to "accept" a fiscal and economic analysis of the project. The analysis was in its fifth iteration, and had been peer-reviewed five times. 

Prior to the discussion, City Manager Craig Malin emphasized the report is merely a "tool," and that as the time approaches to vote on the project's approval, "those tools will be sharpened."

"These are projections, everyone needs to keep that in mind," he said. 

But within those projections lie riddles, and last night's meeting did little to answer them.

Nonetheless, the meeting was not without revelations. 

Councilman Jason Campbell raised questions about the bottom of page 11 in the report, where it is stated that expected revenues from the project like "property tax, ticket fees, parking taxes, etc., will be needed to fund construction and operations" of the project's proposed sports arena and race track.

Before last night, there had not been any discussion that a portion of the development was expected to be owned by a public agency, and Campbell asked for clarification.

In advance of the meeting, this reporter asked similar questions to James Edison of Willdan Financial Services, who prepared the report, but Edison said that his clients—the developers—did not authorize him to speak to the press. 

In response to Campbell, Monterey Downs Chief Operating Officer Beth Palmer had answers, sort of. 

"If it's a public facility, it would be a state-owned facility," she said, citing the Del Mar racetrack as an example. "It would be a state-owned facility as part of an agricultural district, not the city of Seaside."

As for the connection between agriculture and horse racing, Palmer did not elaborate, and Campbell—who appeared speechless—did not press her further on the matter. 

Councilman Ian Oglesby, responding to reports in the press that the report switched which phase the hotel would be built—which made the project fiscally positive in all phases—emphasized that City Council could require the developers to build the hotel in the first phase if it wanted to. 

"Their report is technically sound and well done, and after that, there’s not a lot to say," he said. 

However, the report did not assess market demand for the hotels, which will be impacted by the hotel being completed nearby in Marina, as well as the planned Seaside Luxury Resort at the Bayonet and Black Horse golf courses that may happen soon, pending market influences. 

Nonetheless, Oglesby later contended that a hotel in the project area—which is isolated from any urban centers—would have the same demand as a hotel anywhere else on the Peninsula, including Carmel. 

Many times in the night, Palmer, and Edison, said the projections were "conservative," a sort of worst-case scenario. In those "conservative" estimates, both hotels are needed to for a positive fiscal impact at full build-out.

That presents an interesting wrinkle: The land on which the two hotels are planned to be built is meant to be conveyed from the Fort Ord Reuse Agency to Monterey-Salinas Transit, but according to a March 4 email from MST Assistant General Manager Hunter Harvath, that transfer has yet to happen.

FORA spokeswoman Candace Ingram could not be immediately reached for comment as to when that might happen, or if the land could instead be transferred to Seaside. 

Also emphasized by Palmer was that the area would have private security, which would reduce police costs.

"So it's like Pebble Beach," said Councilman Dennis Alexander, a former Seaside Police officer. "You only get the sheriff's department out there if there's a crime."

Alexander did not note, however, that Pebble Beach is an exclusive enclave for the wealthy, and does not have a horse track and gambling. 

The public comment was more or less evenly divided between those who oppose and support the project, but perhaps the most interesting thing said—which was made in support of the project—came from former Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Chair Mary Ann Leffel, who spoke without irony about what she said when meeting President Barack Obama four years ago.

"I looked him in the eye, and I told President Obama, 'Make this a national monument, because it gives it us economic feasibility,'" she said. 

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Also of note in pubic comment was that before it began, Palmer suggested that proponents of Monterey Horse Park would provide hard data on the number of visitors brought in by the training facility and track. The lack of substantiation for the number of visitors projected in the Willdan report—380,000 annually—was among the chief concerns raised by the peer review. 

Instead, a few horse park proponents provided vague estimates, but no hard data. 

Seaside Mayor Ralph Rubio, who has long appeared in support of the project, played his cards close and hardly spoke until the meeting was wrapping up near 11pm. 

Rubio emphasized that there is still much to be learned, and that many parts are still moving, including the project's water supply, which is meant to be provided by Marina Coast Water District, even though the prospect of that water coming anytime in the next five years feels like a fairy tale.

MCWD will supposedly provide the water with a desalination project, but that project has yet to materialize in any way, and serious questions remain as to how it would ever get funding or approval.

"If it fits, we may go through the process and approve an [environmental impact report]," Rubio said. "We still have to go through negotiations with the county and…with developers. Don't think anybody up here doesn't take it lightly."

At the end of the meeting, Councilman Dave Pacheco made his feelings clear, and joined Campbell in having serious doubts about the project.

"I had really high expectations, really high hopes, and none of those were met," he said. "It’d be really nice to sharpen the pencil beforer the EIR is out, and do a market study."

Campbell spoke more pointedly. 

"I'm doubtful this is the worst-case scenario," he said. 

Nonetheless, in the end, the council voted unanimously to "accept" the fiscal impact report.

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