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Wed., July 1, 2009

County must get racetrack on track

It looks like Spokane County Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard may need to show the same passion for bill collection as they did for reviving Spokane Raceway Park, because track operator Bucky Austin has fallen behind on some payments. Even Bonnie Mager, the lone commissioner skeptical of the county’s purchase of the track, felt encouraged when Austin, a Northwest racing legend, was selected to run it for the next 25 years.

Racing enthusiasts are thrilled with the reopening of the West Plains facility, which has undergone extensive refurbishing. Problem is, some of the contractors who did that work have not been paid. William Winkler, a concrete company, is owed nearly $770,000 and T.W. Clark, a general contractor, is owed about $295,000. Both businesses have notified the county of the unpaid bills. DePaolo Painting says it has yet to be paid $24,000 for its work at the track.

In addition, Austin was late in sending the county $20,000, the equivalent of two monthly payments.

The county’s aggressive move to purchase the track and surrounding acreage was controversial from the beginning, but even supporters have to be surprised that the wheels are wobbling so close to the starting line.

Last summer, Commissioner Richard said the track would be a positive venture “come heck or high water.” We don’t know if this is the heck or the high water, but the county needs to eventually pay off the $4.3 million purchase price. It needs a successful racetrack.

That Austin’s troubles have arisen so soon raises several troubling questions. Did he have sufficient funds to begin with? Did he have a viable business plan? Is the market large enough to support this track and Stateline Speedway in Post Falls?

The county spent money on this project at a time when it faced significant budget challenges, including the need for a new jail. On the same day the news broke about Austin’s bill-paying woes, the public learned that the county has had to kick some people off its methadone treatment program because of budget cutbacks.

Commissioners raced to put together a bid for the track and surrounding acreage. Now they need to quickly reassure the public that the deal won’t backfire.

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