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Wednesday, September 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Danny Westneat / Times staff columnist
Racetrack is just not a priority


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Once again we taxpayers find ourselves in a most precarious spot, situated between politicians and a shiny new sports facility.

This time it's a proposed NASCAR auto-racing track in Marysville. Estimated price tag: $300 million.

They say it won't be built unless lawmakers find creative ways to "partner" with the International Speedway Corp. — that is, find ways for us to pay a huge portion of the cost.

Seem familiar? Anyone have any doubts how this is going to play out?

I hope I'll be wrong. But I suspect the wise solons of Olympia will ponder the new speedway with all the deliberative rationality of kids opening gifts on Christmas morning.

Lately people have been wondering: "Can we build anything around here?" How quickly they forget. Nobody tops us at building lavish, publicly funded sports palaces.

Think back over the past decade or so. State political leaders have rallied around a half-dozen truly major causes.

One was keeping Boeing. They did that, for $3.2 billion.

On transportation, they get points for trying. Light rail still is coming, supposedly. Lawmakers passed a modest tax increase for highways after a multibillion-dollar plan failed. The monorail we're probably about to cancel.

Everything else was sports-related. We built a half-billion-dollar baseball stadium for the Mariners, and a $402 million football stadium for the Seahawks. We gave tax concessions to help build a horseracing track, Emerald Downs.

Seattle voters bought a destination library, but on a regional basis our list of recent accomplishments is two items long: Boeing, sports.
 
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You'd think government would tire of subsidizing private sports empires and take on a new challenge. Like, say, fixing health care or education.

Instead, this week we had politicos scurrying around like valets for the Florida-based company that wants to build a 75,000-seat stock-car stadium.

"Your vision for this project became our vision," Snohomish County officials fawned in a letter to the company, promising help on financing as well as permits.

To be fair, some state lawmakers say the track is too late — we've given so much to sports there's nothing left to give. An influential Senate Democrat, Mary Margaret Haugen, said no way will she back tax money for the project.

Of course some people said that last time. And the time before that. There's something so intoxicating about the mixture of sports and politics that a giveaway seems inevitable.

There's not much economic rationale for subsidizing pro sports. At best it buys a few jobs and some excitement. Mostly, it chews up political resources that could be targeted at ... well, at stuff that matters.

Like right now. Three big-money projects are before either voters or lawmakers — the $1.6 billion monorail, a $1 billion tax boost for schools, and the speedway.

It's transportation, education or sports. The odds-on favorite is the one that shouldn't even be on the list.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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