Hazel Park Raceway announced April 5 that it was closing, effective immediately.

Hazel Park Raceway announced April 5 that it was closing, effective immediately.

File photo by Erin Sanchez

Hazel Park Raceway announces its permanent closure

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published April 5, 2018

 The track had been racing horses since the spring of 1953.

The track had been racing horses since the spring of 1953.

File photo by Donna Dalziel

HAZEL PARK — It’s the end of an era.

Occupying roughly 10 percent of the city’s geographic footprint, Hazel Park Raceway has long been a major presence in Hazel Park. Now after nearly 70 years, the track is closing for good.

Employees and trainers at the racetrack were met with the unexpected announcement April 5 — a month ahead of the anticipated May 4 opening for the 2018 thoroughbred meet. The track, at the corner of Dequindre and 10 Mile roads, first opened in 1949 as America’s first five-eighth-mile track, and had raced horses since the spring of 1953. 

A statement on its website, hazelparkraceway.com, read: “We want to express our heartfelt appreciation to our employees, visitors, supporters and long-standing community partners.”

No reason was given for the closure, which was effective immediately. The news broke at press time, and raceway officials could not be reached in time for comment. 

A separate statement, released by a representative for the track at Marx Layne & Co., said the track has entered into an agreement to sell its assets, and that the transaction is expected to finish within the next few weeks. It also stated that financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. This includes the identities of the parties involved.  

The track was originally a dual-breed facility, but switched exclusively to harness racing from 1985 to 2014. The thoroughbreds then returned in 2014, after a 30-year hiatus, attracting tens of thousands of visitors from around southeast Michigan. 

For a time, business seemed to be improving, amid a general decline in revenues that raceway and city officials blamed, in part, on a lack of support from the state.

But it would appear that the track’s financial realities caught up to it. The track employed about 90 people at the time of its closure. The track’s statement said it recognizes the impact the closure will have on its employees and their families, and that the track will attempt to offer transition services to aid them in their search for new employment.

Hazel Park Mayor Mike Webb said the closure is a sign of changing times. 

“It’s sad to see an iconic business such as Hazel Park Raceway close like this. It’s been here pretty much from the time the city was established,” Webb said. “At this point, I can’t elaborate on why it’s happening, but the track is in negotiations with other ventures, and we’ll see where it leads.   

“We used to have 20-some tracks in the state over the years, and now we’re down to a few, and with the closing of Hazel Park (Raceway), it’ll be even less,” Webb added. “The state did nothing to protect the racing industry. Over the years, the track tried to add slot machines and other forms of enhanced gaming (to diversify its offerings), but past governors and legislators declined. I think it led to the slow demise of the racing industry. The enhanced gaming would’ve helped the tracks offset their losses due to the abundance of casinos that opened up and drew people away.” 

The mayor has fond memories of Hazel Park Raceway.

“I enjoyed the Kentucky Derby up there. It was a nice crowd, and everyone had a good time. It was exhilarating to have everyone out there. I also liked the fireworks they always did for the Fourth of July,” Webb said. “They always did something to provide entertainment. Just good, clean fun.” 

Still, there are other developments in the area that are positive, the mayor said, such as the opening of the Tri-County Commerce Center at the same property, which features tenants such as Amazon and LG Electronics, bringing with them hundreds of new jobs.

Hazel Park City Manager Ed Klobucher said that the track was once a huge asset to the city that contributed greatly to its finances. 

“Hazel Park Raceway looms large in the city’s history,” Klobucher said. “Back in the 1950s, the track generated nearly 50 percent of the city’s general fund revenue. In the ’80s, it generated almost 25 percent. In the late ’90s, it was still over 10 percent. Now it’s less than 2 percent — maybe closer to 1 percent. Obviously, in terms of its financial importance to the city of Hazel Park, it’s just not contributing what it used to contribute,” Klobucher said. 

He echoed the mayor’s sentiment that the state’s lack of support hurt the racing industry — and since the racing industry takes up so much of Hazel Park’s land, it also severely impacted the city during the Great Recession.

“The regulatory environment from the state has been very hostile to horse racing in Michigan, and it’s unfortunate that other gaming options were shot down by the Legislature, because those things could’ve saved the track,” Klobucher said. “I have many fond memories of the place. I grew up in the shadow of the track, and I remember visiting it as a kid. It was always a fun experience to see the horses race.”

While he feels the city will lose part of its identity with the track’s closure, Klobucher said he’s hopeful for future possibilities at the site.

“We’ve seen how successful the Tri-County Commerce Center has been there,” he said. “We’re hopeful that more developers will notice and that we will be able to make more announcements soon.”