"I've invited you here today to participate in what I am calling a "strategic conversation." The people around the table looked a bit puzzled. I continued. "As you know in recent weeks I have connected with industry experts in the fields of social media, branding and re-branding and tourism." Again I looked around the room and the many faces seemed a bit bewildered. Sam looked down at his notepad and then said, "I thought our plans were finalized." "So did I." Silence filled the room for a moment. Then Audrey spoke up. "Well, I'm curious. What will you share with us that will either solidify our plans or move us in a new direction. We're still at a point where we can make changes."
"Let me start with a few observations. We are promoting a sport that hit its greatest success around 1891. Between 1890 and 1930 our state supported our sport in a big way. More than 105 towns overtime supported harness racing tracks, Today most of these tracks are gone. Parimutuel betting at tracks began in 1930. Harness on Sundays wasn't allowed until legalized by a governor's signature in the early 1960's. Our sport was the only legalized gambling event across the state. Then in the 1970's the state lottery was approved. Initially, I have been told that a portion of the funds from the lottery were to be directed to help support harness racing. If that was true it was nixed at the last moments of the legislative process. Then in recent years our State approved a racino in Bangor and a casino in Oxford. The racino in Bangor operates the raceway that for many is still known as Bass Park. The Bangor operation financially supports harness racing and employs staff to operate the track. On the other hand, the Oxford Casino provides little financial support to harness."
Cliff looked out the window -- elbow on the table and his chin resting on his knuckles. "Why this history?" he asked. "That's a great question," I replied. "Today the notion of the horse is out of the consciousness of the typical Maine person. Most have not touched a horse, been on a horse, or taken a carriage ride. They aren't connected. The life of Maine horsemen and horsewomen are authentic. Everyday they work on their farms, at their stables, and at the track.They work hard to achieve success. Some do. Many don't. However, success may not be tied to always winning, but perhaps to the life -- the life lived by many throughout the State of Maine going back to the early 19th century. My message today is that Maine Harness Horsemen deserve better than what has unfolded over the years to an industry in decline. The idea that the breeding of Standardbreds and harness racing would disappear from the Maine landscape is unacceptable." "O.K. we hear you, however, where are you taking us. I hope it's not going to become one of those here we go again moments."
"We're not. Remember that sketch I showed you last week of Fairview Park. The sketch provided us with an overall view of a harness racing track with a grandstand and a convention center. In reality Fairview Park was a horse park, not just a track for harness racing. From my research and conversations with experts from several fields, I believe that we need to create a bold vision and find the financial support and developers to make it happen. How do we create a venue and facility that will become a destination for all Mainers and tourists from outside of the State of Maine. How do we create a venue/facility that will compete with offerings from surrounding communities? That is the challenge and that is the strategic conversation we are going to have today!"
"Over the years I have taken vacations to Williamsburg, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. These vacations have taken me to destination resorts and cities that are destinations for tourist. What these communities have in common is that they are selling history, nostalgia, great food, music, shopping, and hotels.Look at the grand views that take you back a bit when you enter Disney's EPCOT, the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and other similar destinations, The vision we should embrace is one that brings evokes a statement like "Wow, this is unbelievable. I can't believe what I looking at."
"The other day I spoke with a man in his thirties. I spoke with him about a few ideas." His response was -- "Take the Yankees or the Red Sox -- other sports teams -- what do they do? They sell their history."
The meeting and the strategic conversation continued for the morning. Ideas were shared, tossed around, and rejected. Sally mentioned that at one time a time the intention at one track was to develop the track along with the concept of a town center. As this was said, I thought that this might be the place to start, but how would we fund this and find a ready and willing developer.
"Sally I like the Town Center Concept. Now let's expand on that idea. Take for example in Pinehurst, NC, the town owns two historic tracks -- a half mile track and a mile track. Horsemen from Maine train there in the winter time. The track is used by the horsemen early morning until 1:00 P.M. and beginning at 1:00 community members use the track for walking/ Perhaps we can look at how we take a track out of its isolation and bring it mainstream to the community."
Again the room was silent. Were folks thinking or just tired of what I called a strategic conversation. Tom looked at me and said, "I know you've got an idea. We've talked about just about everything. So if you do have a bold vision -- an engaging vision -- one that truly will make a difference, let's hear it."
"I thank you all for coming today. You comments and observations have helped me see my vision a bit more clearly. For me the vision is a bit overwhelming and perhaps too big. However, a smaller vision may result in less.. I bigger vision just might create the "WOW Effect."
"I would like to share my vision to embrace Maine people, its history, and to create a harness racing venue and facility that will truly be a Maine destination for Mainers and the tourist from away."
My first observation is that perhaps a brand that embraces the State of Maine may be necessary to catch the imaginations of Maine families and those demographic groups that are involved with the horse industry or harness racing. I believe it would be a given that the facility would include a first class hotel, highly rated restaurants, a racino, grandstand, paddocks, and a track. My motivational concept is a concept that I read about in a 19th century horse periodical. The article was actually talking about the future of harness racing. The key comment was "harness racing is at its best when it is part of a greater event." That comment stays in my consciousness. On my last trip South, we stop to fill the gas tank in a town in Pennsylvania. I read a road sign that indicated that a Penn National Casino and Track was a half mile away. We took the time to drive right up to the facility and to the track. Here we were looking at a modern track with what seemed to be wonderful track conditions, a totally modern score board, and then this massive glassed in grandstand with comfortable dining and seating areas. Behind this was the casino and hotel. Impressive and wonderful, but in my mind not Maine and not what I had in mind for "The Greater Event."
airs: Presque Isle, Topsham, Union, Skowhegan, Windsor, Farmington, Oxford, and Fryeburg. Demonstration racing takes place at the Blue Fair and the historic fairgrounds in Cornish. Private tracks include Scarborough Downs and the Raceway operated by Hollywood Slot in Bangor. My observations and research lead me to believe that racinos and casinos are not the greater event. Racinos and casinos are draws for people who enjoy gambling -- slot machines and table games. The attitudes and mindset of the racino/casino patron may be quite different than the person who bets on harness racing. So how do we create that greater event for a private track with a racino that will attract a broad spectrum of Mainers and tourists from away?
If I were to just let my imagination flow and incorporate ideas that have come to mind, this is what I would do to create that GREATER EVENT! I would expand that Town Center Concept -- if you look at the sketch of Fairview Park, I would place a hotel with balconies at the North end of the track. There would be a parking garage beneath the structure and an entrance to the track that would bring people to a higher elevation to provide a view of the entire facility and give them that WOW MOMENT. The hotel and many of the businesses that surround the track would be part of an event/conference center. As you looked out upon the track you would see a grandstand on the West side of the track -- within the grandstand structure you would find conference rooms -- the grandstand would also lead to the racino. Attached to the grandstand by a walkway would be an AMC Theater Complex with a restaurant and seating on balconies overlooking the track.On the East side of the track you would see a community living center that would run along the track again with balconies overlooking the track. The living areas could be either apartment or condominiums. Behind the apartments would be the recreation of a 19th century Main Street with retail shops, coffee shops, an ice cream parlor, and restaurants. Ideally restaurants would be track side so that as people dined they would be able to see activities on the track. The 19th century Maine Street would also include a 19th century opera house for performing arts with seating for 500. There would also be a recreation of a Maine Grange. The Grange would be a place for historical and education presentation. The stage would include a kitchen, meeting rooms and a pubic room with stage. The paddocks would be located so that the post parade would begin by driving down the 19th century Main Street and then onto the track to parade in front of the grandstand. As one would look from the North South the viewer would see businesses and activities around the track. Also by the track would be a ferris wheel for riders to view action on the track. Near the grandstand and enclosed to the weather one would also see a Merry-Go-Round. The broad concept is to create that greater event that includes the harness racing track and the racino. The attraction -- the greater event -- Is Maine's agricultural heritage -- Maine's history when the horse was king! The facility is more than a harness racing track, it is a horse park -- a place for horse shows and competitions -- carriage rides from Main Street to the track and back. This idea is one of many -- however, my sense we live in the Grand State of Maine -- so let's build a grand facility and destination that embraces Maine history and Maine Harness Racing!
Sam paused then said, "Interesting -- Who are the developers? Who invests in the project? How does this project reach financial viability?
It's not simple. However, a half mile track or even a 5/8's mile track is somewhere between 450 to 550 feet wide and somewhere between 1150 to 1450 feet long. The idea is to have business connected and surrounding the track with views of the track. Each business is a revenue source that supports the facility. The hotel tied to the racino is its own revenue source with funds set aside to operate the track operation. The AMC theater creates its own revenue and pays rent to the facility. The apartments along the track are rentals or if some are sold as condominiums then owners pay a monthly facility fee. All the shops along Main Street are business entities paying rent to the facility. The track paddock facilities could be home to the Maine Sire Stakes Program and horsemen could stable their horses are the track for a monthly fee. The Opera House and the Grange Hall would be operated through a nonprofit that would bring not only donations but paying performances to each location. Restaurants, cafe, retail clothing shops, an art/photography studio and other businesses entities could be invited to become part of the action. It's just at an idea stage, but it just might work!
After I finished, Sam said, "now all we need is the kitchen sink!"
You know Sam, there are always other ways of looking at the same issue. This is just a proposal. It can be modified -- new ideas added -- for example -- on certain race days we could have 4-H Parades, Horse Parades, and demonstration races using high wheel sulkies and skeleton wagons. It would be great to send tandem racing.
Sam was catching on -- it's about idea generation -- Sam turned in his chair and offered, "You could look at the idea of an Oyster Saloon, a bakery, supporting a Farmer's Market. Even a exercise studio -- How about the idea of a Harness Horsemen's Membership Club open to all that would give members access to a lounge plus access to the amenities like the exercise studio, etc.
Looking at Sam, I said, "Great ideas!" Let's hope that more ideas come in from those listening to our conversation.
The next day I told Sam, “I got a telephone call from up Dexter way. The caller contributed the idea of adding a 19th century country church. Here weddings could take place, a carriage ride down our 19th century Main Street and then onto the track for a ride around the track and then dropped off at the reception. Now that's a grand idea! “
"You know Sam you can really come up with great ideas if you just take a bit of time and let your imagination go for a walk -- As you know, I'm not in the gambling industry and I'm not in the harness racing industry -- I'm an idea generator -- I'm a person who develops products -- Take this "Greater Event" Concept, where can we take it. Without financiers or others joining us, we can't take this idea very far. But think of it -- in the winter, sleigh rides at the park -- winter weddings with a sleigh ride to the reception. The idea is to create community -- an ever expanding community. How can we embrace our youth? -- 4-H activities -- create harness horsemen clubs for young people --- the Great Event is a Grand Event and it will make a difference in our lives, the lives of our children and future generations.
Sam walked down the hallway. He looked and me and said, “Let’s talk.” I just smiled and we walked into the lounge. “What’s up?”
“Well, Sally and I were talking the other day and wondered why you’re all hot to trot on having this particular strategic conversation. It’s not like you.”
“Well, you know, Sam, it’s easy to go with the flow and let other take on the responsibility for making positive change, but sometimes, you just have to get your ideas out on the table -- share them and see if they might possibly resound with the thinking of others. It all started when I read this book, Moments of Impact by Ertel and Solomon. This book focused on “How to design strategic conversations that accelerate change.” Given all that had taken place this past year in Maine’s harness racing industry, I thought it might be time for me to step up and offer ideas that I thought were ideas that when put into action would actually help Maine harness racing.”
Sam smiled. We ordered coffee. Sam looked at me and gave me that well go ahead look. The authors identified three types of strategic conversations: 1. Building Understanding, 2. Shaping Choices, and 3. Making Decisions. I realized that I am not in a position to make decisions, but I could create a dialogue to build understand and to shape choices. I’m also not in a position to identify key partners, developers, key activities, or key resources. I might though be able to create that dialogue that could lead to propositions with value. Cost structures are too technical, however, I could suggest possible revenue streams.”
By this time Sally had joined us and was actually taking notes! She smiled and said, “So, where are you taking us today?
I guess today I’m just going to give a review of what I call, “The Greater Event” Strategic Conversation. I truly believe that if there is any way to implement a strategy that will bring harness racing back into the mainstream consciousness of the people of the State of Maine and tourists who visit our State, then we are required to create that GREATER EVENT -- That greater event that is greater than harness racing and greater than a racino or casino. Today proposals to build a racino are required to either build or support a racetrack plus provide a portion of the profits from gambling to support harness racing. Through the development of a racino we would find a complex that includes a hotel, restaurants, gift shops, slot machines, and a glassed-in grandstand looking out upon either a half-mile or 5/8’s mile track. What I’ve described is wonderful in terms of a great complex, a racino, and a harness racing track along with the funds to support Maine’s harness racing industry. What we don’t have is that GREATER EVENT! We may still have that important and improved revenue stream, but have we brought new people to the track, new people to the industry, and a new attitude towards and image of harness racing in the State of Maine.”
Sam and Sally looked at each other. Not surprised and perhaps a bit amused. Sam had that look on his face. He said, “now what -- sounds like the big bang theory.”
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the creation of a community that surrounds a harness racing track. A given -- this community would include a 4-Star hotel, its restaurants, convention rooms, and gift shops and a racino. All this would be track side. It would be the revenue stream to support harness racing. This complex I would place at the North end of the track. The parking lot would be under the hotel/racino. From here walkways along the track would lead to a grandstand with function rooms on the West side of the track. Along the West side of the track before the grandstand you would find a workout studio, a daycare, a café all looking out upon the track. Beyond the grandstand you would find an AMC theater with its lobby and bar looking out upon the track. On the South end of the track, you would find the paddocks and the Maine Sire Stakes Stable. Between the paddocks and the Stable you would find an indoor area for training, lessons, and shows. Now we go to the East side of the track -- Here we again find raised walkways starting at the hotel/racino leading to apartments, living quarters, and a dormitory space for youth programs. Behind the track side living space you will find re-created a 19th century Main Street with a Country Store, a Grange Hall with seating capacity for 200, an opera house with seating for 500, an ice cream parlor, an oyster saloon, a confectionery/bakery, assorted retail stores, a town hall, and a country church with seating capacity for 200. Raised sidewalks would be built on both sides of Main Street so that when harness races were on, the post parade would start by drivers walking their horses down Main Street from the paddocks and onto the track. Think about weddings in the 19th century church with the happy couple walking out of the church and into a horse drawn carriage that takes them down Main Street and around the track and then deliver them to their reception at one of the businesses located at the track -- at the Hotel -- at the Irish Pub with function rooms -- even return to Main Street and use the Grange Hall at a Reception Hall. As you look at the idea of the GREATER EVENT you see all kind of possibilities and a destination for Maine people and tourists from away. Key to it all -- is the history behind it all -- Maine’s agricultural heritage, 19th century Maine, Maine’s Agricultural Societies, and Maine Harness Racing -- One of the buildings would be dedicated to this history plus historical poster and displays would be set up at selected locations around the track.
Sam shook his head. “How will this GREATER EVENT be funded? Who will be the developer or the developers? Who will be the key players? I would think this GREATER EVENT would need to be developed in stages, but once completed it would be quite the destination -- for the entire State of Maine and tourists.”
“You’re right! Just think about how the businesses around the track support each other -- the confectionery provides all the bake goods -- all weddings are tied to receptions at other track businesses. And probably the biggest concept is that the complex is a horse park -- a place for horse shows, horse competitions, and harness racing -- even demonstration racing under saddle and with high wheel sulkies and skeleton wagons. Perhaps a program could be established for retired Standardbreds to work at the track. As I said the ideas and conversations continue. That’s the idea behind the strategic conversations -- we can build understanding and shape choices.”