The race for NASCAR

  • By Brian Kelly, Eric Fetters and Jerry Cornfield / Herald Writers
  • Saturday, April 3, 2004 9:00pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

They looked across the river in Kansas City, Kan., to their better half in Missouri, and saw skyscrapers and stadiums. But on the Sunflower State side, there was nothing that had put them on the map.

In Joliet, Ill., an hour south of Chicago, they were already nationally known, but not for the right reasons. Their biggest claim to fame was the prison, made memorable by the movie "The Blues Brothers."

Four years has changed much.

Now, both areas are flush with newfound fame — and money — among the gasoline fumes and checkered flags. Today, the two towns are home to NASCAR’s newest racetracks, the Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway.

Snohomish County officials hope this will be the next area to be transformed by motor sports and its economic exhaust.

International Speedway Corp., the company that owns 12 of the nation’s major motor-sports facilities — including the Kansas and Illinois speedways — is looking to expand into the Pacific Northwest.

The company is eyeing locations in Washington and Oregon, and local leaders have been meeting regularly with International Speedway representatives in the hope they will pick Snohomish County for the track.

Undisclosed locations near Marysville and Monroe are being promoted, but those areas face stiff competition from sites in Kitsap and Thurston counties.

The stakes are sizable. Speedways hosting NASCAR races see Super Bowl-sized jackpots.

For Marysville, that could mean a chance to step out of the economic shadow cast by the Tulalip Tribes’ Quil Ceda Village, the burgeoning shopping mall and casino just across I-5 that will one day include a hotel and amusement park.

"We’re looking for economic development. That’s no secret to anyone," said Mary Swenson, Marysville’s chief administrative officer. "Our citizens are screaming for services that we can’t afford."

A motor-sports facility with NASCAR events would pump millions into the regional economy.

"There’s no doubt there will be economic benefits," Swenson said.

The racing facility would span hundreds of acres and would jump-start new businesses to serve racing fans. NASCAR events typically draw crowds of 80,000 or more.

"There’s a lot of area that’s going to develop. To have it develop under one developer really brings some unique opportunities," she added.

The reason for building a track in the Northwest is simple, said David Talley, an International Speedway spokesman.

"We feel the Pacific Northwest is an untapped market as far as NASCAR goes," he said.

NASCAR has 75 million fans nationwide, and the closest company-owned track is the California Speedway near Los Angeles. The closest track that hosts NASCAR’s premium Nextel Cup races is in Sonoma, Calif.

International Speedway executives want to start racing in the Northwest by 2008. Talley said the company has to consider many things, including available acreage and infrastructure.

"If you are to build a facility with 85,000 people, you’re going to need the roads to handle that many people," he said.

Other amenities are also important. A typical NASCAR fan will drive 300 miles to see a race, coming in on a Thursday and staying until the main event on Sunday. Many visitors also want entertainment near the track, such as malls, an amusement park or a big-city experience.

A deadline for selecting the Pacific Northwest track site hasn’t been set.

"We haven’t gone in and said, ‘We want to get a deal done by this date,’ " Talley said.

"It’s got to be the right fit," he added. "We’re not going to build a $500 million facilityif it doesn’t make sense."

That also means the company will be looking for financial enticements from city, county and state governments.

"We’d love to get some help at all levels," Talley said.

Government officials know they’ll have to offer incentives to make Washington the front-runner, as was done to land the Boeing Co.’s 7E7 program.

"They’re not going to locate it here unless the state does something for them," Lt. Gov. Brad Owen said.

That "something" would be a financial aid package to ease the cost of constructing the track and grandstands, improving roads and extending utilities.

The pivotal piece is likely to be tax-increment financing, which would funnel sales or property taxes generated at the site back into the project to pay the bills. But there’s a hitch: State law doesn’t allow such financing, and the state constitution bans using property taxes for that purpose.

Past attempts to change the law — but not the constitution — have failed.

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Mason County, plans to try again in January. "That will be the guts of the bill," he said.

While it is a form of public financing, Sheldon said, it does not siphon existing taxes and would be different than the means used to help build the Seahawks and Mariners stadiums in Seattle.

Further, depending on what site is chosen, key routes may need improving sooner than state legislators had planned. Such a reshuffling of priorities won’t come without debate, because it could delay work in other regions.

For local lawmakers, the pressure will be conducting a speedy review and approval of any proposal.

"We have to deliver when they pick a site," Sheldon said. "We can’t sit around two years wringing our hands."

Assuring International Speedway leaders that won’t happen underscores the competition among counties vying to be the home of a track. At least 10 sites are under consideration — five in Snohomish County, one in Kitsap County and four in Thurston County.

Leaders insist it’s a friendly battle.

"It’s not, ‘Please put it in Snohomish County, Kitsap County or Thurston County,’" said Owens, who will hold public hearings on the track proposal once a site has been chosen. "It’s, ‘Please let us help you put it in Washington state.’"

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon said: "I will support wherever NASCAR decides to go. I believe it’s good for Washington state. It is a competitive process, and I plan on being damn competitive."

Deborah Knutson, president of the Snohomish County Economic Development Council, said while the county is competing with others, she hasn’t focused on what the rivals might offer. Instead, she said Snohomish County needs to work hard on its own proposal, an approach used in luring the 7E7 to Everett.

"The focus is on how can we put forth the best business package," she said.

Jeff Boerger, president of the Kansas Speedway, understands what local officials are facing in the struggle to land an International Speedway facility. He was on the economic development team that brought the company to Kansas.

"The Kansas taxpayer has about $50 million invested in this project," Boerger said.

Bonds were sold to pay for the project and are being paid off by sales and property tax revenues generated by the speedway.

It’s been a safe bet, however. The speedway has spurred an economic boom from the start.

"We saw an economic impact immediately during the construction phase," Boerger said, which meant 2,000 new jobs and a construction payroll of $50 million.

"We have sold out each of our races since day one," he added. "The impact has been tremendous."

It’s estimated that 70 percent of the speedway’s race fans come from outside the Kansas City area. And an economic study was done to see how restaurants, hotels and other businesses were benefiting from the track.

"Just after our first year, we generated roughly $150 million into the Kansas economy," he said.

The $250 million speedway has been in business for four years. It seats more than 80,000 spectators and can be expanded to 150,000.

On land near the track, roughly $500 million in retail development is going in. A major movie theater and an outdoor mall spanning a million square feet are under construction.

Although there are just two major NASCAR weekends held each year at the track, it generated revenue on 210 days last year.

The impacts have gone beyond the economy in Joliet, said Matthew Alexander, general manager of Chicagoland Speedway, which he said has been a boost to the blue-collar region’s morale and image.

The town was trying to move away from its industrial past, and local leaders wanted to make the area an entertainment destination.

The $130 million raceway, a 75,000-seat facility on 930 acres, has grown in popularity since it opened in 2001. "We’ve sold out every year," Alexander said.

How would a major speedway fare in Snohomish County?

While estimating how much money a NASCAR track would pump into the county economy is impossible, those who have studied the economics of sports agree the amount would be huge.

The Checkered Flag Task Force, which includes officials from the state and from the Puget Sound counties under consideration by International Speedway, has commissioned a study of the impact. It’s due out by midmonth.

Talley estimated the construction phase alone would have an economic impact of approximately $230 million. Once the facility is operating, he anticipates $220 million annually in business revenue. While only a few dozen year-round jobs are likely to be created, thousands of vendors, small business people and companies would benefit from the seasonal crowds.

"It will be lucrative for almost anyone, whether it’s in Washington or Oregon," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, which studies the business of sports.

As Talley said, it’s not much different than the economic impact of annually hosting the Super Bowl. One study found that International Speedway-owned Phoenix International Raceway injected more than $270 million into the state’s economy in 1999, compared with about $300 million generated when Phoenix hosted the Super Bowl in 1996.

To compare, look at the economic ripples created by the Seattle Mariners. When Seattle economist Dick Conway studied the major league baseball team’s contribution to the state economy in 1994, he found the team brought nearly $142 million in business revenue and created 2,249 jobs.

But only about a third of the revenue created by the Mariners is considered "new money" — or money that comes from out of the area. That is, if the Mariners left Seattle, most of the money would still circulate in Washington’s economy but would go toward other forms of entertainment.

"The economic impact of professional sports teams often is money that would have been spent in the region anyhow," Swangard said.

Even though the opening of Safeco Field and growing interest in the Mariners in Japan has brought more tourists to Seattle, Conway said much of the team’s revenue still comes from a limited area.

"The crowd is largely, I think even today, from the central Puget Sound region," he said. "NASCAR tends to draw from a larger pool."

Because those major racing events attract a large percentage of out-of-town and out-of-state fans, they bring in more new money than the average sports team.

Knutson added that building a retail center around the track would also boost the economy. Unlike the track itself, which might host relatively few events a year, the retail complex would be a constant attraction.

"You can then look at that retail sales tax coming in year-round," she said.

Even though Swangard is skeptical of some of the economic figures being cited, he said the opportunity is too tempting for any area to pass up.

"It would still be worth going after," he said. "For what will amount to a low-impact development that will not be used more than a few times a year, the economic impact is significant."

In Snohomish County, the site near Marysville is shaping up as the local favorite because of its proximity to I-5. Marysville has prepared a proposal for International Speedway that even suggests a name for the track — Great Northwest Speedway.

Since no deadline has been set, the talking will continue.

"There are a lot of different pieces that have to fall into place before we take the next step," Talley said. "I think the dialogue will continue with all the sites. "Where we land has to make sense for us."

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