It’s a legitimate facility

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It’s a legitimate facility

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Seo Cheon-beom

The Korean Racing Authority is caught on the horns of a dilemma. It cannot afford to let its new and expensive off-course betting facility go idle for more than a year and forever fight off grouchy residents. When it did open for a trial, it was lambasted by locals, civilian groups and politicians.

Some would question why an off-track gambling parlor should be allowed in the heart of the capital. The Seoul Race Park is located in Gwacheon on the outskirts of Seoul. But there must be more of an understanding of horse racing as a sport. The horse-racing industry cannot possibly be run on the revenue from a turf club, which requires enormous scale and budget to house horses and a race track, and meet customer demand at the same time. This is why off-course settlements, or teletheaters, are essential to the horse-racing industry worldwide.

Legal track betting has been run abnormally in this country. Unlike casinos that run 20 hours a day and easily accessible online betting or sports lotteries, track betting is heavily regulated. It is available three days a week in three race tracks nationwide with pari-mutuel exchanges available in 30 stations from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Naturally, many people are crammed into a limited space for a limited time. To meet the demands of racing fans, off-track theaters and betting facilities are best located around downtown areas with public transportation. If they are tucked away in remote places, they will generate unnecessary social costs. Punters could be drawn to illegal gambling if they are deprived of a legitimate betting sport. Revenue worth 1.7 trillion won ($1.65 billion) from horse racing, which goes into public finances, could be hurt.

Off-track betting has both merits and downsides. Gambling addiction, various annoying and offensive scenes, too many customers and disreputable business are some of them. But such problems do not occur because off-course stations are located in downtown areas. More blame should go to the world’s strictest regulations on off-track establishments that result in a dire shortage of betting facilities.

Horse racing and betting in many countries has been established as a healthy pastime even when betting facilities are near residential neighborhoods. Hong Kong runs two race tracks, as well as over 100 off-track parlors around downtown areas. There are over 10,000 off-course betting facilities in Britain, Australia and France, which allow fans to buy betting sheets anytime, anywhere and enjoy the sport all year.

It is naive to think that if supply is constrained, demand will gradually die down. It is more reasonable to increase supplies according to demand and control traffic to allow a healthy business environment. What matters is not the location, but how it is run.

The Yongsan facility should be addressed in this perspective. Instead of wrangling over the appropriateness of the location, the operator, residents and customers should discuss and work together to run the facility to suit the residential area.

The Yongsan facility has been built with a state-of-the-art design at a cost of 120 billion won. It has passed all the regulations required by both the government and district administrations. But the facility has been empty for nearly a year due to knee-jerk opposition from residents prejudiced against gambling facilities. The grounds of opposition are beyond the operator’s understanding. What they demand is outright violation of the Constitution’s mutual trust protection clause. The right of a certain group cannot be above the Constitution.

The Yongsan off-track facility has been legally approved by lawmakers based on the consensus of social demand. The government is walking away from a law it created because of the negative public response. What company would dare to make a regional investment if administrative decision is swayed by public opinion?

Principles and trust must be the nuts and bolts for any business.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is the director of the Korea Leisure Industry Institute.

By Seo Cheon-beom



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