It won’t take long for Spokane County to get some use out of its new raceway.
Soon after getting keys to the Spokane Raceway Park at 5 p.m. today, race organizers will start moving in for a weekend road race.
Spokane County commissioners Tuesday approved new track rental fees for the rest of the year. They also agreed to abandon plans to hire an interim operator; instead, the county parks department will run the track for the rest of the season.
Commissioner Mark Richard said the quick turnaround is a sign that the raceway has a viable future.
“This ship has already sailed, and we’re moving forward, and this is going to be a positive thing come heck or high water,” Richard said after Tuesday’s hearing. “We haven’t even really scratched the surface.”
But Commissioner Bonnie Mager, who opposed the county’s purchase of the raceway, pointed to growing concerns about the economy.
Earlier Tuesday, County CEO Marshall Farnell briefed commissioners on an increasingly gloomy budget picture. New estimates show the county will dip into reserves by $2 million in 2008 to make up for sluggish sales tax revenue.
Even after using some of the reserve, the county expects to be $1 million above its goal of maintaining reserves equal to 10 percent of its budget.
Still, Mager said the numbers are further indication that the county should not have purchased the track.
“My question is, ‘What is the purpose of government?’ ” Mager said, noting that a county judge Tuesday requested better funding for drug court. “We haven’t done any real prioritizing here.”
Richard and Commissioner Todd Mielke accused Mager of playing election-year politics. Meilke said county payments to pay off the track will be about $300,000 a year. That’s a fraction of 1 percent of the total county budget and well worth it for property that also was purchased for a law enforcement training center and 60-acre park, he said.
The county bought 315 acres of the raceway at an April auction for $4.3 million. Payments will start next year.
On Tuesday, commissioners scrapped plans to contract with a private party to operate the raceway on a short-term basis. Last month, a five-member committee recommended that Stateline Speedway be given a contract to operate the track in 2008 and 2009.
County Parks Director Doug Chase said that instead of a short-term deal, the county will pursue a contract for perhaps 10 years in hopes that a private, committed group would be willing to invest in improvements.
Don Schumacher, a consultant hired to analyze the track for the county, wrote commissioners July 3 that because of delays in the final sale, it no longer made sense to hire an interim operator.
Chase told commissioners the raceway could cost the county about $175,000 this year after track income is considered. The county has committed $80,000 of that amount already for consultant work. Other 2008 expenses include security and a part-time employee.
Many of the improvements recommended for 2008 in a June 30 report by Schumacher’s firm will be put on hold, Mielke said. Groups that rent the track this year will use it as is.
The Schumacher study recommended spending $365,000 in 2008. About half of that would be for a more comprehensive study of the property’s future, which still might be commissioned this year. It also suggested spending $1.1 million in 2009. Officials say they hope many of the expenses outlined in the study will be paid by a long-term operator.
The first event at the raceway under county ownership will be the Spokane County Grand Prix. Race organizer Scott Adare said the event was booked in November.
He said the track is safe even without cleanup and changes recommended by consultants.
“The road course is usable the way that it sits,” said Adare, vice president of Northwest Motorsports Club of Spokane.
The group will pay the county $11,000 to rent the raceway, the same amount it paid last year to hold the event under different ownership. Adare said he expects 100 drivers.
“Though not officially a spectator event, interested parties could go and watch the races,” Adare said.