Racetrack debate goes round and round at Capitol
Proponents say the Bremerton NASCAR track will create thousands of jobs, but opponents say it will cause traffic problems and sully the environment.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — Talk about going around in circles.
Supporters of a proposed NASCAR racetrack near Bremerton told lawmakers on Tuesday the 83,500-seat speedway would create thousands of jobs and — unlike other professional sports stadiums — wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime in the long run.
But opponents painted the proposal as an "obscene piece of pork-filled corporate welfare" that would sully the local environment and create massive traffic problems.
Lt. Gov. Brad Owen called the proposal the best economic-development opportunity he has seen during his 30 years in state politics. But state Treasurer Mike Murphy spoke against it, saying state-funded debt should never be used to pay for private projects.
While Bremerton's mayor called the speedway a "great fit" for his city, other local officials from Kitsap County bashed the proposal.
For more than a year, Florida-based International Speedway Corp.'s (ISC) plan has sparked controversy on the Kitsap Peninsula and divided local political leaders.
Despite the discord, ISC is pushing ahead on legislation that calls for using public money for a little more than half of the track's estimated $368 million cost.
The legislation — House Bill 2062 and Senate Bill 6040 — came up Tuesday for its first committee hearings. Today, the company is bringing NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip to Olympia to lobby lawmakers.
Similar to the financing arrangements for Safeco Field and Qwest Field in Seattle, the measures call for creating a public authority that would use locally generated state sales-tax revenue and an admissions tax to help pay for the track.
But ISC officials argued that their proposal is a much better deal for the state than previous stadium tax packages and one floated last week by the Seattle Sonics.
ISC vice president Grant Lynch, who also runs the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, said the $180 million that his company has offered for the track is more than what any of the other "stick and ball" sports franchises were willing to pay. The company has also agreed to cover any cost overruns.
Company officials said their economic models show the track would attract hordes of out-of-state race fans and generate more than enough additional sales-tax revenue to pay the state's share of the project.
"You can't have sports stadiums if they're taking money out of schools and roads and everything else that y'all have to fund," Lynch told the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Economic Development.
But critics blasted the track proposal. They said ISC, which operates a dozen speedways nationwide, can easily afford the project without taxpayer help.
They said the company is trying to sidestep local taxes and land-use rules. And they raised numerous concerns about traffic congestion, noise, and air and water pollution.
"We get the risk, pollution and sprawl, and they get to take all the money back to Florida," Jacob Metcalf of Bremerton, a local anti-racetrack activist, told the Senate panel.
Opponents seemed unmoved by Lynch's promise to build the nation's first "green speedway" with state-of-the-art construction. Nor were they comforted that the company uses the same traffic experts who handle events such as the Super Bowl.
Numerous business and labor groups favor the racetrack, as does Congressman Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, and the city's mayor, Cary Bozeman.
Still, not a single legislator representing the Kitsap Peninsula has come out in favor of the proposal.
"That's troubling to me," Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, told Lynch.
While the speedway legislation does not designate a track site, Lynch said the company still has its sights set on Bremerton.
Several Kitsap Peninsula lawmakers who showed up later at a news conference sponsored by racetrack opponents said local opposition to the project is overwhelming.
Freshman Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, called ISC a "terrible corporate citizen" and predicted the NASCAR promoters would be terrible neighbors.
"These people are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you," Seaquist said. "They'd be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law."
Lawmakers from other parts of the state said they were baffled by the lack of local support.
"This is about jobs," said Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, a town that has struggled with the loss of timber jobs. "It's really hard to wrap your brain around folks that don't want economic development."
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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