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What the approval of gambling measures mean for Columbus
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What the approval of gambling measures mean for Columbus

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Ag Park

Platte County Agricultural Park, 822 15th St. in Columbus.

With Nebraska's voters in Nov. 3's general election having approved three ballot measures to allow gambling in the state, local community leaders must now determine what that will mean for Columbus.

"We're excited about the opportunity that gambling could bring to Columbus," Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley said.

In all, the ballot measures changed the state constitution to allow gambling at racetracks, set up a Nebraska Gaming Commission and created a 20% annual tax on gambling revenue.

There are six cities in Nebraska with horse racetracks already in place, and Columbus is one of them. The others are in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, South Sioux City and Hastings.

Through the tax, $20 will be set aside for every $100 a gambling operation in Columbus makes. Of that $20, $2.50 will go back to Columbus and another $2.50 will benefit Platte County.

Columbus Exposition & Racing (CER) Board Member Tom Jackson said the growth of Nebraska racetrack operations will benefit local communities and the state. He said all the racetracks in the state are working together, as well as with the Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association, to facilitate that growth.

"We will work collectively to have more racing opportunities in Columbus for us to compete with other states on the purse monies available to the horsemen. With that, the state's breeding will be enhanced. We'll hopefully be able to race more days, provide more jobs in feed agricultural sales," Jackson said.

Jackson said jobs may also be created to support more days of racing.

According to Jackson, the Columbus racetrack hosted races four days of the 52 total held in the state in 2020. Jackson said Grand Island was the site of most of this year's race days, with 42 held there.

"The goal is to get it up to close to 200 days," Jackson said.

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CER holds a racing license and rents the facility at Ag Park. If races are to increase, it follows that the existing racetrack facilities out at Ag Park, 822 15th St., may need some work.

Jackson said CER will participate in ongoing discussions with the City of Columbus, Platte County Board of Supervisors and the Platte County Ag Society over what that might look like.

"In order for this to be a successful project and an economic boon for the Columbus area, we need a collaboration of all leaders," Jackson said. "We can't do it in silos, we have to be able to collaborate."

Right now, though, plans for moving forward are ephemeral at best.

"Until that vote was taken Tuesday and passed, you couldn't get the cart in front of the horse. You just had to kind of wait," Bulkley said.

Now, though, Bulkley said the City is excited to hear CER's vision and figure out how to help give it life.

Theoretically, the possibilities range from doing nothing to making improvements and updates to the existing facilities to building a casino.

"We could stay at the existing place, we could seek other places. We're still reviewing all that," Jackson said.

Still, though, Jackson said the measures and the gambling they legalize will be good for the community.

"Our goal is to create a destination facility for Columbus so that we can create more jobs and bring more people in and add economic benefit to the city and the county," Jackson said.

Molly Hunter is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach her via email at molly.hunter@lee.net.

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