Track backers fight on

When she was young, Democratic state Rep. Kim Dudik made regular pilgrimages to the Missoula County Fairgrounds. When not tending to her sheep, bunnies and pigs, the Frenchtown native and former member of 4-H enjoyed watching rodeos and horse racing inside the fairgrounds' historic track.

Now that Missoula County looks poised to launch a significant overhaul of the site, Dudik worries that her children, ages 2 and 4, won't be able to enjoy an important piece of their agricultural history.

"This is just wrong," Dudik says.

Dudik is alarmed because on May 22 the Missoula County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to exclude Missoula County's racetrack from future planning efforts. That means the 99-year-old track, which was the first structure constructed at the fairgrounds, is slated for demolition.

In 2010, the fairgrounds was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with the race track designated a cultural landmark. Aiming to preserve the 12-acre oval dotted with stables, along with its cultural legacy, Dudik and others, including state Sen. Cliff Larsen and Montana Board of Horse Racing Director Dale Mahlum are asking Missoula County to reconsider its decision to scrap the track.

"The people I represent don't want to see this gone," Dudik says.

The commissioners' decision jibes with a plan the body adopted in 2010, that tentatively calls to replace the racetrack with an oval pathway. The "racetrack promenade," as it's called, would lie in the structure's vacant footprint and encircle a new livestock exhibit building and a rodeo arena. Construction costs for those two structures were estimated in 2010 to be $13.4 million.

Commission Chair Michele Landquist says the commissioners aren't necessarily sold on the 2010 plan, and they haven't yet fleshed out how to pay for renovations. But, because less than half of the space within the track's confines is being used for income-generating events, such as rodeos, concerts and demolition derby, she says the commissioners remain firmly committed to getting rid of the track.

"For the most part, it's just sitting there, dormant, growing weeds and gophers," she says.

Landquist explains that commissioners, as stewards of the county's pocketbook, are obligated to make the fairgrounds more lucrative. Horse racing simply doesn't generate enough revenue to keep it, and the track, around. "It's just business," she says.

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