Spokane County’s days in the racing business are officially coming to an end.
On Tuesday, the county commissioners waved the checkered flag and agreed to sell the Spokane County Raceway to the Kalispel Tribe of Indians for $6.1 million.
“This is a huge day,” Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said. “This is going to be huge for the region.”
Kalispel tribal officials implied that the raceway won’t be repurposed.
Brandon Haugen, the Kalispel tribe’s executive director of real estate, said the tribe wants to help grow motorsports.
“We want to see racing succeed,” Haugen said. “We’ve seen how strong the racing community is in Spokane. We recognize the passion.”
Tim Nydegger, executive director of corporate strategy for the Kalispel Tribe Economic Authority, said the tribe looks forward to “maintaining the park as it is.”
Until Tuesday, tribal officials had not definitively stated that they intended to maintain the Airway Heights racetrack for racing.
The sale ends the county’s controversial 13-year venture into racetrack ownership.
Many have criticized the county for buying a racetrack in the first place. Opponents lambasted the 2008 purchase as a misuse of taxpayer funds and doubted the facility would be profitable enough to merit the investment.
The county did have supporters, however, who argued the raceway would fuel economic development and generate tax revenue.
Spokane County Commissioner Al French said he’s never been a supporter of county raceway ownership and has wanted to sell the property since he was elected.
The county doesn’t have the expertise to run a professional racetrack, French said.
“I couldn’t be happier that we’re selling this property to the Kalispel tribe,” he said. “I think it’s fairly obvious that the track could not be successful under the ownership of the county.”
Long and winding road
It’s been a tumultuous 18 years for the raceway.
In 2003, investors sued raceway owner Orville Moe, who died in 2015, after he failed to pay them. After five years of legal battles, a Superior Court judge ruled that Moe had failed to pay dividends, and the raceway was auctioned off to pay back investors.
Spokane County won the raceway at auction for $4 million.
After taking over the property, the county ran into a slew of legal, financial, environmental and operational problems. The county poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the facility, went through multiple track operators and often failed to keep the raceway’s oval open.
Racing enthusiasts who remember attending events at the track in the 1980s and 1990s say the raceway has been a shell of its former self in recent years.
Because of those down years, motorheads expressed excitement when the county announced in May that the Kalispel tribe had offered $4.75 million for the raceway.
The Kalispel tribe has the business and entertainment expertise to make the raceway a bustling venue again, many said.
Mixed in with that excitement was concern that the tribe may not use the raceway for racing. Some fear the tribe, which owns the Northern Quest casino next to the racetrack, will repurpose the facility.
George Lawrence, owner of CAL Cars in Airway Heights, is one of the worried motor fans.
Lawrence, along with his wife, Kelly, made the county an unsolicited offer for the raceway on June 4 for $4.8 million, bettering the tribe’s offer. Lawrence said he wanted to buy the track to ensure racing would continue in Airway Heights.
The Kalispel tribe came back to the county 10 days later and offered $5.05 million.
Lawrence never made a counteroffer, but the county received another unsolicited offer from MDJ Reiner LLC, whose registered agent is John Pariseau.
Pariseau, who lives in Spokane and works in venture capital and private equity, offered the county $6 million for the raceway on Friday.
The Kalispel tribe topped Pariseau on Tuesday before the commission meeting with a $6.1 million offer.
At Tuesday’s meeting, a handful of Spokane racing fans said they want to see racing return in earnest to the raceway. Some said they don’t care who runs the facility, as long as it remains open.
But some have a preference.
“I don’t feel like the Kalispel Tribe of Indians has the best interest of the property at heart,” Trey Wright said, voicing his support for Lawrence.
Other than Wright, motor fans and Airway Heights residents backed the tribe’s offer at the commission meeting.
Irv Zakheim, chairman and CEO of Zak! Designs in Airway Heights, said all of his business dealings with the tribe have been positive.
“I believe if this is sold to them, they will do a better job than anyone else has done out there,” Zakheim said.
French said he thinks the Kalispel tribe is the best possible raceway owner, and that selling the property to the tribe was the county’s best option.
“You try to get the best price you can,” French said. “I think we achieved that.”
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