A diverse outlook for Pownal racetrack

By Susan BushiBerkshires Staff
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POWNAL, Vt. — In just 45 minutes, the Green Mountain Race Track acquired new owners, a new name and a new vision yesterday.

Progress Partners Ltd. closed a long-awaited $1 million deal with longtime track owner John C. Tiegtens on Monday at the Jacobs, McClintock, and Scanlon law offices in Bennington. During yesterday's press conference at the track, partnership principals Richard F. Hein, an architect; and residential home builder James Paqua, both of Shaftsbury, told the audience that the 144-acre property is now the Green Mountain Park.

The men have partnered with Hein's brother, Robert Hein, a film-industry sound professional whose list of credits include "Secret Window," "Le Divorce" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," and financial professional Steven Sonnenblick.

Robert Hein and Sonnenblick could not attend the conference. Sound effects for an upcoming Woody Allen film were recorded at the park recently, Richard Hein said.

According to Paqua, the partnership mix bodes well for park development. "We have all the elements," he said.

He and Hein described numerous development options. The vast three-story grandstand offers a wealth of possibilities, Hein said.

The second floor boasts 5,600 seats that offer spectacular views of the racetrack and beyond through huge glass windows.

"One could imagine media performance," Hein said.

The third floor was designed with kitchen and restaurant space. "This could be a banquet facility," Hein said. "We are currently talking to people interested in a facility there."

Since the sale was announced on Tuesday, the phones haven't stopped ringing, said Paqua, who added that people are calling to express interest in the site.

The former racing oval, once home to horses and later greyhounds, is considered a "sacred place," said Hein and Paqua, and is expected to remain intact. Equine events and car shows could be held on or near the racing surface, they said. A drive-in theater or a car-hop style eatery could be part of the property.

"We like nostalgia," Paqua said. "The equine theme is important. This was a racetrack and we want to keep that. We are going to be reaching out to these industries." Paqua and Hein have often mentioned a "made-in-Vermont" village and during the conference said that the former horse stables — which were built to shelter over 850 horses — might provide a site for a "Vermont showcase."

"We want this development to be sustainable," Hein said. "We want something permanent."

Office space could occupy the grandstand first floor, he said. The partners stressed that they want to benefit the area and serve as a partner to the town as well. Ideas such as a year-round farmer's market, a public park that incorporates the Hoosic River riverfront and a youth center are all under consideration, Hein said, adding, "And we feel that there is wonderful opportunity for housing here."

Pownal Selectmen Chairman Nelson Brownell, state Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, state Rep. William "Bill" Botzow, D-Pownal, state Agency of Commerce and Community Development Deputy Secretary Louanne Dillon and Bennington County Industrial Corp. Executive Director Peter Odierna expressed their optimism for the site's future.

"There will be a lot of work, a lot of fits and starts, but I think [the partners] will be there at the end of the day," Odierna said.

Hein and Paqua cited Winchester Store owner James Winchester as someone who served as a valuable conduit between the partners and Tietgens. Hein noted that no agricultural or "green space" will be lost due to park development.

"This is a developed site that we are redeveloping," he said. "Development is not something that is contrary to Vermont. It goes hand-in-hand with agriculture. We are lucky enough to be surrounded by green — the greenery of the valley and the mountains. This facility lends itself to multi-use development."

The development phases are being designed as part of a site master plan. Hein and Paqua stressed that the planning phase, which will involve town and state entities, will come first and will be respected. Another priority is a scheduling a public meeting so that the partners can hear from community residents. Paqua said that the meeting may be scheduled after he returns from an upcoming trip.

"The business plan is to what we can as soon as we can," he said. "It's step-by-step. These are the concepts, but we won't be pouring concrete until we work through the process. We're in the process of putting our phases together. We want to do it right. We better do it right."

Tietgens had owned the property since 1993 after paying $250,000 for it during a public auction. The four-decade-old property served as a horse racing track until 1977, when greyhound racing took center stage. Racing closed for good in the fall of 1991.

After Tiegtens acquired ownership, several purchase proposals flared and then fizzled, including a plan to open a casino, an attempt to return horse-racing to the track, and earlier this year, a proposed purchase by Dorset businessman Jack Appleman. The site played host to the Lollapalooza rock festival in 1996 and was the site of the Pownal Community Fair for two years. Shriner's Bingo games were held at the track as recently as this year.

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