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Thursday, October 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Racetrack hinges on hefty help from state
By Emily Heffter
State legislators yesterday heard for the first time what it could take to get racetrack developer International Speedway Corp. (ISC) to build a 75,000-seat track on a site between Marysville and Arlington.
Under a proposal jointly introduced by Snohomish County, the city of Marysville and ISC, the state and possibly the county would be asked to raise about $250 million through the sale of bonds to build the track, estimated to cost $300 million to build. The state would also foot the bill for road improvements around the track, including a possible new interchange on Interstate 5. No estimates have been made for the cost of those improvements.
The $250 million in bonds would be repaid with tax revenue generated by the track. The land would be leased to ISC, local officials said during a 90-minute legislative-committee meeting.
Swenson said that was the amount ISC "threw out" when discussions started. It's just a starting point for negotiations, she said.
"That's the level of investment that we are willing to put in this project," said Lee Combs, senior vice president of corporate development for Daytona Beach, Fla.-based ISC. "It's a significant amount of money."
ISC announced last week that an 850-acre site in Snohomish County is its preferred site for a Northwest racetrack. The proposed 7/8-mile track could open in 2009 on what is now fallow farmland.
Yesterday's meeting offered the first glimpse of what the company is expecting from the state.
In return, ISC would build a speedway that is expected to host two to three big NASCAR race weekends, including at least one Nextel Cup race, each year. A study early this year indicated the track would bring between $87.3 million and $121.8 million in new spending and tax revenue, and create more than 1,300 new jobs.
In lawmakers' hands
The state Legislature is the track's remaining hurdle, and depending on the mood of elected officials and their constituents, it could be a difficult one. Lawmakers will be asked to decide whether the economic-development opportunity posed by a racetrack is worthy of state money at a time when the economy is sluggish.
Last year, the state gave Boeing a $3.2 billion tax break to build a new jetliner in Snohomish County. And public financing for sports stadiums has become commonplace in recent years. In 1997 and 1999, the state and King County offered financing packages to allow for construction of new stadiums for the Mariners and the Seahawks.
Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon characterized the track proposal as an opportunity for the entire state to reap huge benefits without making a large investment.
"I do believe this is a good investment for Washington state," he said.
Swenson stressed that Washington's investment wouldn't come from the state's general fund. The bonds would be paid back with sales taxes generated within a public-facilities district, like those put in place to pay for Safeco Field.
As NASCAR has grown in popularity, other states have offered track developers tax breaks and other financing packages to lure speedways. Loyal NASCAR fans will travel long distances to see a race and stay longer than the event lasts, proponents say. For some communities, the economic benefits have been immense.
Drawing interest, concerns
Legislators at yesterday's meeting in Olympia had a lot of questions for the track developer, but many weren't ready to discuss funding. They were still deciding whether a track in Snohomish County is a good idea.
"NASCAR is just one more element to an already very saturated area," said Rep. Bill Eickmeyer, D-Belfair.
Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, said she was intrigued by the presentation.
"On the surface, it looks very good," said Chase, a member of the House's Trade and Economic Development Committee. "But I think we need to sharpen our pencils, and we have not had that opportunity."
ISC's Combs warned that the company will walk away from the deal unless the Legislature adjusts public-financing laws in its 2005 session and makes road improvements "in a timely manner."
"The bottom line ... is to make sure that there's no real money coming out of the taxpayer's pocket," said Sen. Dave Schmidt, R-Mill Creek. "I had made the commitment [that] we're not going to give away the farm."
The deal proposed yesterday was reasonable, he said, because the loan would be repaid with new revenue.
Snohomish County Council Chairman John Koster said he was surprised ISC offered only $50 million. But he said transportation improvements are a more pressing issue. Those could run into problems in the Senate Transportation Committee, where the ranking Democrat, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island has said she doesn't support a track.
Members of a neighborhood group that opposes the track said the proposal asked for more public funding than they had feared.
"I just think that's incredible," said Eyleen Shouman, who lives in Arlington's Gleneagle neighborhood, a short distance from the proposed track site.
Snohomish County residents will have an opportunity to voice their opinions at a public hearing that the Legislative Committee on Economic Development and International Relations will hold in Snohomish County, probably in November, said Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, committee chairman. The committee includes key legislators from the House and Senate and is charged with studying economic-development issues on behalf of the Legislature.
In the meantime, Marysville Mayor Dennis Kendall said, his city and the county will sign a letter of intent with the speedway developer, making the arrangement more official.
"This comes right down to what the Legislature is willing to do," Koster said. "Because without a legislative package, this dog can't hunt."
Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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