Last month, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians offered Spokane County $4.75 million for the county-owned raceway in Airway Heights.
County officials and racing enthusiasts have mostly supported the Kalispel Tribe taking over the Spokane County Raceway, arguing the county never should have bought it in the first place and that the tribe is far better equipped to run it.
But not everyone’s thrilled at the idea of tribal ownership – at least not without strings attached.
If the raceway becomes tribal trust land, it would become tax-exempt. And that has spurred the Airway Heights City Council to try to ensure the property remains on its tax rolls.
The city is asking the county to add caveats to the sale to keep the land taxable. The city also is working on a proposal with a private sector partner to buy the raceway.
“You remove those, it removes the ability of a community to effectively provide public services, and thus the costs get spread around to others,” Airway Heights City Manager Albert Tripp said.
Tripp said if the tribe successfully revives the racetrack and turns it into a major draw once again, visitors will be driving to events on city-maintained roads. If those visitors get into car accidents, they’ll rely on city first responders and emergency personnel.
So a racetrack revival could lead to an influx of people who use city-funded services. But if the track is on tribal trust lands, the city wouldn’t get tax revenue to offset the cost of those services, Tripp said.
“If it (the raceway) grows into something that potentially the tax base is going to be there, wouldn’t that be something the city is interested in?” Airway Heights City Councilman Dave Malet said.
Tripp and Airway Heights City Council members said they support the Kalispel Tribe’s economic development efforts, they’re just worried about losing a potential source of tax revenue as the city rapidly grows.
Tribal officials associated with efforts to buy the raceway from Spokane County could not be reached for comment.
“On one side of the scale is our excitement surrounding the potential associated with this opportunity,” Airway Heights Mayor Sonny Weathers said in an email, “while the other side holds our concern over challenges related to maintaining systems, services, and infrastructure to meet the functional needs of the community at predictable rates.”
Airway Heights’ plans
Airway Heights has two strategies to prevent the racetrack from becoming tribal trust land.
First, the city has sent a letter to the county commissioners. That letter asks the county to add caveats to a sale of the racetrack to the Kalispel Tribe. Essentially the city wants the county to ensure that, even following a sale, the land remains taxable. In that scenario the tribe would still own the raceway, but it would remain on the city tax rolls and the tribe would pay standard taxes on the property and events at the facility.
The city also wants the county to ensure the racetrack stays a racetrack. Tripp said that’s partly because the city has invested in the track over the years and wants that investment to pay off.
In addition to the letter, the Airway Heights council on Tuesday authorized staff to put together an offer to buy the racetrack from the county. The city would have a private sector partner for that purchase. Tripp did not share the dollar amount of the offer.
“The city’s main interest is to ensure that the properties remain on the tax rolls and are not placed in the trust,” Tripp said. “That is our goal.”
Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said Wednesday that he hadn’t heard of Airway Heights’ interest in buying the raceway but the county will entertain all offers.
“It’s important for us to make sure we act in the best financial interest of the county,” Kerns said.
Troubles at the track
The raceway has been a shell of its former self in recent years.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Spokane Raceway Park attracted some of the greatest drivers in the country.
Tom Sneva, a Spokane hometown legend who won the 1983 Indianapolis 500, raced there. The American Hot Rod Association held its annual championships at the raceway from 1975 to 2003.
During the past couple decades, however, the track’s fortunes have turned.
In 2003, racetrack investors sued the racetrack’s owner, Orville Moe, after he failed to pay them for their investments.
That led to five years of legal battles and the eventual sale of the raceway in 2008, at auction, to Spokane County for $4 million.
Spokane County’s time as owner didn’t always go smoothly. Even before the pandemic, the raceway’s oval has often been closed.
Airway Heights hasn’t been receiving much tax revenue recently from the racetrack. The county doesn’t have to pay property tax on it, and the raceway hasn’t been generating sales or admissions tax revenue while closed.
But Tripp said if a private owner took control of the racetrack once again it could be a valuable revenue source.
And the track would be private even if the city buys it with the help of a private sector partner.
“If the city successfully acquires the track, it would not be a city-owned track,” Tripp said. “In essence, it would not be owned by the public, but would be privately owned by some party within the community or within the region and thus it would also be on the tax rolls.”
Airway Heights officials emphasized that their concern over the proposed sale to the Kalispel Tribe is exclusively related to a loss of tax revenue.
“I know that the city really appreciates partnering with the tribe on many things,” Airway Heights Deputy Mayor Veronica Messing said. “We’re also just trying to be mindful of our growth in the future.”
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