Horse racing will continue at the Rillito Park Horse Racetrack for the foreseeable future, but a debate continues to rage over the long-term plans for the historic north side park.
County officials want to transform Rillito into a multiple-use, regional park that can potentially cater to horse racing, soccer and other events while serving an area of town in need of a large-scale recreational facility.
Soccer supporters say the park is an ideal location for a major soccer venue that could host championship tournaments and be a boon to the local economy.
But the Pima County Horsemen’s Association, along with some horse racing enthusiasts, believes the county is looking to eventually get rid of horse racing in favor of adding more soccer fields and finding other uses for the park.
The group is also upset about the county’s plans to demolish three older barns with historic designations and relocate two of the structures from the west end to the east end of the park. They say, in addition to the historical implications, moving the barns could create a parking nightmare for next year’s racing season.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted this week to authorize about $5 million to build two new soccer fields and add lighting to some existing fields, setting in motion plans to tear down the barns. The money was originally intended to help the city build a north side community park. But it was reallocated to Rillito because the city couldn’t find a location.
County officials are willing to listen to ideas and proposals from the horse racing and soccer communities between now and June, before it finalizes any plans to demolish the barns. There are two groups currently crafting proposals to continue racing next year.
The horsemen’s association, which has operated horse racing at the facility for about 25 years, is competing with the Rillito Park Foundation, a non-profit group that is renovating the historic J. Rukin Jelks Stud Farm house and gardens at the park. Both groups say they believe horse racing can coexist with soccer and events at the park. However, the Horsemen’s Association is more pessimistic about its future at the park, as well as the overall future of horse racing at the venue.
“Through the years, the county has taken more and more,” said Patti Shirley, the group’s vice president. “They’re just killing us by inches. We’re getting squeezed out.”
At this point, the group is mostly concerned with maintaining parking and preserving the existing barns.
Mark White, a track superintendent with the association, even submitted a proposal to county officials he thinks would keep parking and the historical barns while still adding more soccer fields. White estimated the county’s current proposal would take away one-third of the current parking at the facility.
“If you don’t have any place to park, there’s no sense in having a facility,” he said.
However, the Rillito Park Foundation agrees with the county’s proposal, saying moving the barns will not hinder parking.
The relocation of the barns would also improve spectator access between the grandstands and infield, said Jaye Wells, director of the Rillito Park Foundation.
“It’s a win-win for the soccer and the racing community,” Wells said.
Wells’ group wants to increase the number of races at Rillito, create a site for a weekly farmer’s market and build a Western heritage, art and history museum close to the Jelks Stud Farm.
The foundation also wants to build more soccer fields.
“We need more fields,” Wells said. “There is a huge demand in this part of the town for soccer.”
There was initially a concern the county would tear down the grandstands and add more fields, which could potentially end horse racing. County officials say the grandstands are obsolete for soccer viewing and too expensive to bring up to building codes.
But nothing will happen unless the county decides to call a bond election and let voters make those decisions, said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
If bonds are approved at an anticipated 2015 election, it would still take at least another three years to complete the project, Huckelberry said.