Calling it the most important economic development proposal he’d seen in 31 years in Olympia, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen today urged skeptical lawmakers to back a $368 million NASCAR track on the Olympic Peninsula.
With the jobs, taxes and tourist dollars the track could bring, Owens told the Senate’s rural economic development committee, “I would hope that you would say 'How can I help?’”
The track, proposed for industrial land near Bremerton, would be by far the largest speedway in the Pacific Northwest. Florida-based International Speedway Corporation and subsidiary Great Western Sports would pay at least $180 million of the cost. The rest would come from bonds paid with a local sales tax and admissions taxes.
In exchange, the backers say, the 83,000-seat speedway would draw NASCAR fans from throughout the region – including Canada – for two major race weekends a year. It would be, they say, the economic equivalent of having a Superbowl here every year.
“I’m asking you not to hesitate and let this opportunity die,” Owens told lawmakers.
Tellingly, however, not a single lawmaker from the area around the proposed site is backing legislation to help fund the track. And many lawmakers – as well as the governor – are clearly skeptical that Bremerton is the right site.
“What do you think about the human factor?” asked Sen. Paull Shin, D-Mukilteo, who recalled a bitter fight by neighbors against a similar plan proposed a couple of years ago in Snohomish County. “They live there. They have their home there, and this is their life there.”
“This bill is nothing but corporate welfare for NASCAR,” said Ray McGovern, chairman of an anti-track group called Coalition for Healthy Economic Choices for Kitsap.
“They say that we would be an equal partner,” said Jacob Metcalf, who lives in Bremerton. “We get the risk, pollution and sprawl, and they get to take all the money back to Florida.”
Senate Bill 6040 would create a “public speedway authority” to collect a 5 percent admissions tax and a local sales tax of about 1 cent on a $20 purchase. Most of the money would pay for the bonds that help build the track.
The track has the support of every chamber of commerce, economic development council and labor union in the area, said Grant Lynch, vice president of the International Speedway Corporation and president of its 143,000-seat Talladega Speedway. The tax money used by the project would be created by the speedway and its draw of tourists and business, he said.
It doesn’t, however, have much support in Olympia. So far, only 4 of 147 lawmakers have signed on as sponsors of the bill. Gov. Chris Gregoire met Friday with most of the state lawmakers, two mayors, and a county commissioner from that area.
“They were a resounding no,” the governor said Monday in a meeting with capitol reporters. “They don’t object to NASCAR. They don’t want it in its location in Kitsap county.”
Gregoire wants them to consider Lewis County, about half an hour’s drive south from Olympia. The region recent saw the closure of a coal mine that employed hundreds of high-salary workers.
“They need economic development and I think their legislators would embrace the idea.” But track boosters, she said, “said it doesn’t meet their criteria.
“So at this point in time, I can’t see the political support to make NASCAR happen at the location that is currently being proposed in Kitsap County,” Gregoire said.
Lynch said today that he'd go down to Lewis County to check out the site, but said the goal is too keep the track close to Seattle, the nation's 13th-largest media market.
"There's a reason all the stadiums are in King County," he said. Plus, he said, if the speedway location shifts too far south, fans will patronize hotels and restaurants in Oregon. That would hurt the economic benefits to Washington.
Hoping that some star power will boost its odds, promoters are bringing Richard Petty, Greg Biffle and Darrel Waltrip to Olympia tomorrow to meet with lawmakers and attend a labor union reception.
Lynch also said that the speedway would be the first “green racetrack” in the nation, meeting or beating all environmental standards and spending $1 million to preserve local wetlands and green spaces. The track and buildings would occupy about 350 acres of the 950-acre site, he said.