April 7, 2008 in Opinion

Caution flag is out

The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County commissioners have a difficult decision to make this week with respect to Spokane Raceway Park.

The West Plains auto racing complex is scheduled to be auctioned Thursday, and commissioners are scheduled to decide Tuesday whether they’ll bid and, if so, how much. Like any consumer heading off on a shopping excursion, they need to make prudent decisions about what they can afford.

Commissioner Bonnie Mager, the least enthusiastic of the three commissioners about the purchase, has warned that other pending needs already apply pressure on the county’s revenues. A sewage treatment plant and a jail, for example.

County voters also will soon be asked, again, to pay for an upgraded emergency communications system that they previously turned down. All that, plus an unknown environmental cleanup bill that may come with the racing facility, makes a strong case for fiscal caution.

Still, the 580-acre site is more than a collection of racing surfaces, and some of the 13 parcels involved (the county is interested in only some of them) could be useful for other purposes, regardless of whether motor sports is one of them.

Visionary leaders look decades into the future, declared Commissioner Todd Mielke, who has said the facility could bolster the economy. Early in his commissioner career, Mielke showed a similar appreciation for the county-owned baseball park at Spokane Interstate Fairgrounds, and he lobbied the Legislature for funds to repair its deteriorating infrastructure.

That’s relevant to the current discussion, because while $4 million in state funds have addressed the most urgent of those improvements at 50-year-old Avista Stadium, there is more to be done there. The Spokane Indians minor league baseball team attracts about 190,000 of the 200,000 spectators who occupy those seats during baseball season, and club officials are concerned that a multimillion-dollar commitment by the county to acquire and renovate Spokane Raceway Park could sidetrack the remaining renovations that the commissioners’ viability committee deemed necessary.

That’s expected to cost about another $4 million, and the county will not earn points with the Legislature if, after taking and spending the state’s $4 million, it defers its own remaining share of the job so it can make an unanticipated discretionary purchase.

When county commissioners meet Tuesday, they should ask themselves if the best role for them is to tie up millions of tax dollars acquiring and refurbishing a motor sports facility or, instead, to stand ready to cooperate with a private-sector buyer who will make the investment, be a responsible owner and show better management practices than those who landed Spokane Raceway Park in its current dilemma.

A county study said the racing facility could be a “diamond in the rough,” and maybe it could. But the county must not abandon its responsibility to maintain the diamond it has, the one that’s already been cut and polished at Avista Stadium.

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