Jack Collins Jr. sat in the cab of an excavator, invited by the new owner of the Sarasota Kennel Club to take the first whack at demolishing the iconic structure at the edge of the Sarasota city limits on University Parkway,
He couldn’t do it.
The legacy of three generations of building up and operating the Collins family business was too much for him to tear down — albeit only a symbolic piece. So he sat next to new owner Baird Inc. President and CEO Eric Baird and watched as the mechanical arm and bucket knocked down a corner of an auxiliary building adjacent to the grandstand.
That is all that has been taken down for now, but within weeks demolition contractor Forristall will move more equipment to the site that will be used to make way for redevelopment, which has yet to be planned.
New owner Baird Inc. of Sarasota, a family office that as part of its portfolio invests in under-utilized residential and commercial properties, is working with engineering and land use professionals to assess the site's potential. In May 2023, Baird acquired the 26-acre property from the Collins family for $9.5 million.
At issue was an interlocal agreement between the city and the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport that prohibits new residential development beneath the 65-decibel noise contour of the runway.
“There was an agreement between the airport and the city and we didn't even know about it,” Collins said. “They wanted to keep stretching the case out and we decided we didn’t want to be in the lawsuit even if they could prevail.”
Shortly afterward, the property was acquired by Baird.
Since it was established in 1929, the Sarasota Kennel Club hosted generations of greyhound racing and parimutuel betting enthusiasts. The track was purchased by Jack Jr.’s grandfather, Jerry Collins, in 1944 at auction for $5,000.
The Collins family operated the racetrack until greyhound racing was banned in Florida by statewide referendum in 2018. The track ceased operations in 2019, and since then the track and infield area have been overtaken by vegetation, and the structures have deteriorated.
A family legacy
Born in 1963, Collins grew up around greyhound racing and has been involved in the family business his entire life.
“I was the first one in my family to go to college,” he said. “I graduated college and in 1985 I went right to work and then have never stopped since.”
Collins experienced the ebbs and flows of the business, from the days when dog racing was permitted by the state to operate only four months each year, which he said in retrospect was the most profitable business model, to when they were permitted to operate year-round — effectively forced to do so as the Florida Lottery began in 1988 and Native American tribes were permitted to expand from Bingo to casino operations, also in 1988, with Congressional approval of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Compelled to operate year-round to meet the growing competition, hours expanded but revenues shrank as gambling preferences shifted. In later years, Sarasota and other dog racing tracks began simulcasting dog races and horse races in lieu of live events.
“Previously we would get people from Fort Myers or Tampa or St. Pete,” Collins said. “Because all the tracks could only run four months out of the year, St. Petersburg would run in the winter, we would run in the summer and Tampa would run in the fall. We kind of rotated employees, and there was no other legal way to gamble so it was very busy.”
Busy enough for upwards of a half-million dollars in wagers on a typical Saturday. The host track’s share of those bets was 20%, or $100,000.
In the mid-1980s the track was able to bring in $50 million a year in bets on dog and closed-circuit horse races in four months. At that time, as reported by sister publication Business Observer, there were 18 greyhound racing tracks in Florida, all of which faced similar future challenges.
“When the lottery came in everybody was complaining that they needed to better compete, and that's when they started doing the simulcasting which was horse racing from out of state and things like that,” Collins said.
As parimutuel wagering waned, Sarasota Kennel Club would add a card room, which Collins said became the dominant revenue source for the last 15 years of operations. The family relocated the card room operation, called One Eyed Jacks, to Palm Plaza Shopping Center on Bee Ridge Road,
Statewide referendum or not, the outlook was bleak for the future of greyhound racing in Florida, and the Collins family was already adapting its business model.
That reality doesn’t make the impending demolition of the Sarasota Kennel Club any easier for Collins, but time has softened the impact. He has visited the site on several occasions over the years since closing, though, and has watched the formerly bustling facility being slowly reclaimed by nature, leaving him with mixed emotions.
“It’s a decision you have to make,” Collins said. “If you’re going to stay there, you’ve got put some money into it. If you're not, then you might as well just figure out what your next step for your business and then move on. It doesn’t bother that much to be honest because it was so decrepit. I look forward to seeing the land completely opened and cleared.”
Baird has considered repurposing the existing parking lot into privately operated remote parking Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. A shuttle would be provided for the short drive across the street to the airport. Other potential uses include industrial warehouses, self-storage or high-end car garages. According to Baird, the proximity to the airport, U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 make it a viable location manufacturing and logistics.
Before the symbolic demolition, Baird posed with Collins for photos. The company has released a statement that reads, “The leadership within Baird, Inc. understands and appreciates the historical significance and incredible location of this site. As such, our organization continues to evaluate the highest and best uses of the site for both the residents and visitors to our community for the foreseeable future.”
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.