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Downs work begins with new roof, new sign

Batavia Downs Casino is getting a new roof, the first step in a $27 million upgrade and expansion at the historic Park Road racetrack, a fixture in the community since 1940.

The $1 million roofing job by a Rochester firm now under way also will involve replacing the iconic Batavia Downs sign, whose 12-foot high letters can be seen from the Thruway a half-mile away. A new, brighter, LED sign of the same size will be in place later this summer.

The plan, approved by the state Lottery Division several weeks ago, will increase the number of video-lottery terminals from 640 to 815. That is predicted to double the video gaming operation's current $40 million annual take. The terminals first appeared in 2005.

The slot machines, which use scrip instead of cash, are to be moved from the second to the first floor to make them more accessible. That switch may not be finished until next year.

The rooftop sign, erected on a grandstand addition in 1959, will be replaced by a $123,000 display being made off-site by a Rochester company. Officials hope that the letters "B" and "D," a prominent part of the Downs logo, can be used as decorative pieces.

Western Regional Off-Track Betting, headquartered in Batavia, bought the financially ailing harness track in 1998. Four years later, it restored racing, a fixture at the oval since its opening 62 years ago.

A profitable operation, the track -- which last month had its first $1 million week in net gaming revenue, with a surge in Kentucky Derby betting -- has offset losses at OTB parlors in the 15 counties it serves in the Buffalo and Rochester areas.

The renovation will add a sports bar named for Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas.

The new Grandstands Bar, with mementos of the pre-OTB operation, joins the more formal clubhouse restaurant to cater to fans.

Live racing returns to Batavia on July 23, when the Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg winds up its 65th season, which began in mid-January.