Questions surround future of iconic grandstand abandoned for 50 years
A deal to sell the Phoenix Trotting Park in Goodyear is expected to close by the end of the year, potentially opening a new chapter in the history of the West Valley landmark — a grandstand structure that has sat abandoned for 50 years off Interstate 10 near Loop 303.
The 194-acre site offered for sale in December is in escrow, according to John Finnegan, the property’s listing agent and senior vice president with Collier’s International in Phoenix.
Finnegan said he was not at liberty to identify the buyer or reveal the purchase price, information that would become public record after the transaction is completed.
The asking price for the property was $16.5 million, and Finnegan said multiple offers were countered by the owners, with a deal struck two or three months after the property was listed.
Finnegan would not elaborate on the future of the property other than to say “the current buyer has a plan we think he can execute.”
Visible and accessible from the interchange of two major Valley freeways, the location makes the property desirable, he said.
“In our opinion, it’s one of the best locations on the I-10,” he said. “It’s ground zero for the future.”
Colliers’ marketing material advertised a daily east-west traffic count of 77,200 vehicles past the site and a population of 95,377 with an average household income of $84,372 within a five-mile radius.
The neighborhood also includes major distribution centers as well as the Perryville Prison.
It’s the property’s grandstand structure that has achieved iconic status as a curiosity and serves as a gateway to the metropolitan area for motorists approaching from the west.
Alternatively called a white elephant or an eyesore, the structure hasn’t been used for five decades, with the exception of a role in a Hollywood movie.
No request has been made to the city for rezoning the property, which was last zoned in the late 1990s with a classification that’s compatible with the adjacent RV park, according to Harry Paxton, economic development project manager with Goodyear.
He said the city would like to see the property developed so that it expands Goodyear’s economic base by creating what he called a “job center.”
To develop the property, city infrastructure, including water, would need to be extended to the area, Paxton said.
Paxton said multiple conversations between the city and more than one group interested in the Trotting Park have taken place since it was offered for sale.
Finnegan said interest in the Trotting Park — especially the grandstand that he called “kind of mystical” — made the property fun to market.
“It’s a great property,” he said. “It’s real interesting — people’s ideas, their thoughts about what should be done to it.”
But Finnegan acknowledged nothing would prevent a buyer from demolishing the structure that sits in the middle of the property.
That would be bad news for preservationists and others who have fanned interest in the Trotting Park over the years with websites and YouTube videos dedicated to the property.
According to historic accounts, New York horse racing financier James Dunningan, who spent winters in Arizona, developed the park for harness racing, which involves horses pulling two-wheeled carts with riders.
The grandstand was built in 1964 for $9.5 million, a considerable overrun from a budget of about $3 million.
The four-story structure, measuring 195 feet by 500 feet, 86 feet high and topped with a two-level press box, is notable for its concrete construction based on a futuristic design by an Italian architect and was built at a time when asbestos and lead paint were commonly used construction materials.
The grandstand’s 5,400 seats had a view of the track through 22,608 square feet of glass, believed to be the largest glass installation in the country at the time, according to an architectural journal.
Food and beverage service was available from a top-floor cafeteria, two snack bars and two cocktail bars.
Parking spaces could accommodate 5,000 cars.
In January 1965, the Trotting Park was the place to be, opening with a crowd of 12,000 people ready to place their bets.
It was an event worthy of features in Sports Illustrated and The New York Times.
But the excitement soon stalled. Back in the ’60s, the 20 miles between Phoenix — not yet a major population center — and Goodyear was a journey without today’s freeways, and the Trotting Park attracted small crowds, closing at the end of 1966 after two years of operation.
In the financial fallout, Dunningan sold his New York track, but went on to success later in California.
A new owner stripped the grandstand of its equipment, and over the years, the aging structure has deteriorated, been vandalized, covered with bird droppings and served as a canvas for graffiti artists.
It’s surrounded by fencing posted with no trespassing warnings that fail to contain continued fascination with the site.
Trevor Freeman, 30, of Phoenix has studied the property for 10 years, an interest that resulted in creating the website phoenixtrottingpark.com.
“It’s one of those places I had always driven by, so I decided to check it out,” he said.
He said he visited the grandstand in 2005 and 2007 on unauthorized photographic missions that he shared with an urban explorer website, then posted on his own site.
“I couldn’t find a good comprehensive history of it online, so I wrote my own,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who wonder about the Trotting Park.”
During his visits, Freeman said he found the structure “remarkably well preserved,” but he thinks attention to the property in recent years may be responsible for vandalism.
He said recent photos by Trotting Park explorers show that an escalator between the entrance to the main concourse has been destroyed.
Freeman said he entered the private property through an opening in the fence that surrounds the grandstand, and after two hours of exploration was discovered by a security guard who told him to leave. In recent years, he said the fence has become more secure.
In 2012, a 17-year-old boy sustained a head injury after a 20-foot fall down an empty elevator shaft during a late-night exploration of the structure with four friends, according to a West Valley View news story.
Freeman said he gets about half a dozen inquires weekly from people who are interested in visiting the site, something he warns against on his website.
Among those he’s been in contact with is Sharon Girulat of Lake Forest, Calif., who established a website appealing for preservation of the property and outlining ideas for the grandstand, including economic, cultural and educational uses.
The Trotting Park’s claim to fame may be an appearance in the 1998 film No Code of Conduct, which Freeman called a “terrible movie.”
While Freeman said the movie includes “gratuitous shots” of the grandstand, it is perhaps the best way to get a look inside.
Charlie Sheen and his father, Martin Sheen, star in the film as a father-and-son detective team working to break a conspiracy to smuggle drugs from Mexico to Phoenix.
Written and directed by Bret Michaels, best known as the lead singer of the rock band Poison, the action film ends with a showdown featuring an explosion staged at the Trotting Park that blew out what was left of the grandstand’s glass front.
While the movie may not be memorable, the explosion caused a controversy for killing or injuring scores of pigeons nesting in the grandstand, with wildlife groups called in to help the birds.
The property has had a series of owners, most recently Roles Inn of America, a family company that bought the property from Grand Canyon University in the early 1990s.
Roles operates the Cotton Lane RV Park south of the site, where the Trotting Park’s former stables have been converted to storage units, the tack room is the laundry facility and the pool sits on space that was once a hay barn, according to a Three Rivers Historical Society report.
According to a West Valley View story, the Trotting Park attracted interest from prospective buyers in 2011, but a deal never came to fruition.
While Freeman acknowledged that as the metropolitan area stretches west, the grandstand is probably less valuable than the land it sits on, but he would be disappointed if new owners demolished the structure.
He said cities in the Valley do a poor job of preserving historic structures, citing the loss of buildings recently in downtown Phoenix to development.
Glenn Gullickson can be reached at email@example.com.