Track transformed one city’s identity

JOLIET, Ill. -The first buzz on race day starts quietly.

It’s 9 a.m. on Sunday, July 11, and fans fill only a few dozen of the 75,000 grandstand seats at Chicagoland Speedway.

In a few hours, at 2:30 p.m., the green flag will drop. By then, a sell-out crowd will have burst forth from the rolling carnival called NASCAR to celebrate a blur of color, speed and sound.

For the moment, early birds Junior and Velma Williams, 61 and 52, sit alone in their $195 bleacher seats. Both big racing fans, they had hoped this track would be built near their hometown of Bourbonnais, Ill., 30 miles away. But Joliet lured it instead.

“I wouldn’t mind having my house right here,” Junior Williams said.

Most of the owners of a dozen homes on Silver Maple Lane – just 660 feet outside the track – don’t enjoy living so close. Twice a year, on big race days, the neighbors stay at home waiting for it all to end. A few party at their grills and watch the race on TV.

The First Church of God reschedules its service from Sunday to Saturday on race weekends to avoid the traffic. Farmers Paul and Mary Bernhard harvest about $72,000 by letting NASCAR fans camp in their fields.

Chicagoland opened in 2001 in Joliet, about an hour southwest of Chicago.

Before it came, three communities in rural Illinois wrestled with questions: Did they want a NASCAR track? What kind of money trouble would political promises get taxpayers into? What would the community gain? At what price? What would it lose? What about noise, traffic and property values?

People in Snohomish County are asking the same questions. The county is one of four places in Washington and a few more in Oregon vying for a track that International Speedway Corp. of Daytona Beach, Fla., wants to build in the Northwest to host NASCAR’s biggest race series, the Nextel Cup.

Some Snohomish County politicians are lobbying hard for the track because it seems to make sense: close to Seattle, and close enough to pull fans from Oregon, Spokane, Idaho and British Columbia.

NASCAR crowds translate into business, which they hope would fuel the economy.

Joliet is much like Snohomish County – a mix of urban and rural, with suburbs crawling out from a major metropolis. Joliet leaders had the same hopes that NASCAR would boost their economy. So far, they’ve found the boost has been good regionally, but slower than advertised for Joliet.

“The immediate impact may not be there. That’s OK. This is one of those long-term plays,” said John Grueling, president of the Will County Center for Economic Development. “It helps the community image, the community pride. How do you put a number on that?”

How the race was won

Before the track opened, Joliet lived through a debate similar to the one that is swirling in Snohomish County. Should local leaders pursue a big-time stock-car track?

For the Williamses, the answer was yes.

“They were initially going to put this in the Kankakee area, but (some residents) didn’t want the noise and the traffic,” Junior Williams said.

Other communities outside Chicago also struggled with the track question. Then, relatively late in the race, Joliet overtook the other communities by offering a speedy annexation and permit process, and hefty 10-year breaks on property taxes.

“Now, they’re kicking themselves,” Williams said of his hometown. “They didn’t think about the economy.”

One-eighth of a mile behind the bleachers, some of the track’s neighbors had a much different answer. Standing in her front yard while the noise from NASCAR’s smaller Busch Series race droned up and down in waves, Joyce Marino recounted a litany of problems and annoyances.

Combined with the traffic, the noise, while not deafening, has caused property values to drop and has made selling nearby homes difficult. The track declined to buy them out.

“The city, they’re so gullible,” neighbor Ken Smith said. “They wanted that money.

“We were in the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess.”

Standing outside the track, Lou Ciuffini had pedaled his bike from his home two miles away to take a picture of the B-52 bomber that was scheduled to fly over at the start of the Nextel race. He summarized a few pros and cons.

“One of the biggest concerns then was whether any tax revenues would go to the school,” Ciuffini said. “It turned out not much, if any.”

That’s because the Joliet Township High School District, at the urging of city officials, agreed to let the track off the hook for most of the property taxes, which are the prime revenue generator for schools in Illinois.

It would have been nice not to give such big tax breaks, Ciuffini said. “But if they don’t give it, they don’t settle (the track) here.”

An image problem

The crux of the debate sounds similar to what Snohomish County and Washington state went through to get the Boeing Co. to assemble its new 7E7 jetliner in Everett. Like that debate, answers vary depending on a person’s values about economic development.

To understand how Joliet landed the track, proponents and critics agree the decision must be seen in historical context. Hearing stories from residents of Joliet about their city in the 1980s might sound familiar to those of people who lived through the economic bust and Boeing layoffs of the 1970s in Snohomish County.

At one point in Joliet, more than 26 percent of the people were out of work after the city’s biggest employer, Caterpillar Inc., laid off 4,000 people. The city’s image was of a Rust Belt city with a tough federal prison and little else.

“We were all traumatized by Joliet’s 20 percent unemployment rate,” said Pat McGuire, a school board member who has been a vocal critic of the track’s tax breaks.

“Downtown was dying. Absolutely nothing was happening,” agreed Arlene Albert, the school board’s president. She voted with the board’s majority in favor of the tax breaks.

In the 1990s, Joliet pushed to change its image. City officials attracted two riverboat casinos to town. The city built a new stadium to attract a minor league baseball team, the Joliet Jackhammers. Officials promoted other tourist attractions as well, including a museum and a renovation of the historic Rialto Theatre.

“They had to act, and they did act,” McGuire said. But the extent of the tax breaks went too far, in his opinion.

On the other hand, Don Fisher, Joliet’s planning director, credits those efforts with boosting Joliet to become the 10th fastest-growing city in the United States from 2000 to 2002, going from a population of 106,334 to 118,423.

On the fast track

When racing officials started talking about bringing NASCAR to the Chicago area, proposals cropped up in a few rural outskirts. Debates between pro-track and anti-track groups flared, especially in Plano, said Roger Fuhrman, 44, of Napierville, Ill.

“I remember driving through” Plano, he said. “One pro-track sign said, ‘The facts back the track.’ ” Other signs supported the “Scrap the Track” movement.

Joliet took notice.

“It was supposed to go to Plano,” said John Mezera, Joliet’s city manager. “But it’s an anti-growth community. So we thought, ‘Oh, let’s make some phone calls.’ “

Officials settled on a track site on farmland three miles outside of town. Mezera promised racing officials he could get them through Joliet’s annexation process in 30 days. He delivered on that. But neighbors of the track were startled.

“They kind of ramrodded it through,” said Dan Tracy, whose sister owns a farm two miles from the track.

Joyce Marino said neighbors’ concerns did not get much attention until after the decision had been made. “I think they would have sold their mother’s soul to get it,” Marino said.

Little help to schools

Some critics, including McGuire, would say that Joliet’s leaders sold their children short.

“It didn’t make sense to me to give tax breaks to comfortable corporations when we had a struggling (school) district,” McGuire said. “Our students need the money more than their shareholders.”

Tax breaks were not part of the economic message touted by track proponents before the track was built. A 1998 study by Northern Illinois University estimated the Plano School District could get $2 million in the first two years if the track were built there.

Already struggling with a budget deficit of about $6 million, Joliet schools will be lucky to get $600,000 in track taxes in the first 10 years.

On the flip side, that’s still more money than Plano schools ended up with when they lost the track to Joliet.

A boost, not a boom

The economic impact for Joliet has not been as big as touted.

John Greuling, president of the Will County Center for Economic Development, said if people expected the track to immediately attract other commercial and industrial development, they likely have been disappointed.

“Quite frankly, there’s not been much,” Greuling said.

Eventually, growth should pick up, he added. The city did attract a trucking distribution center near the track recently.

Before the track was built, Joliet’s hotels already were mostly full during the summer, so new business is more of a benefit regionally than locally, the city manager said. “For us, the revenue wasn’t why we did it,” Mezera said. “One question you’ve got to ask: Is it good for the image of your city?”

“It was a marketing tool,” agreed Fisher, the planning director. “Every time they said ‘Joliet’ on NBC, what was that worth?”

Debates about other issues sounded less heated, particularly regarding security and traffic.

Deputy Chief Fred Hayes of the Joliet Police Department said his worst fears never materialized.

“We had prepared to arrest anywhere close to 100 people,” Hayes said of the first NASCAR race. “We had transport vehicles and temporary holding facilities pre-staged down at the track.”

It wasn’t necessary. Police no longer sweat it. At this year’s race, they only responded to three incidents – two fights and some reported stolen items, Hayes said. In the worst of the four years, only eight crimes were reported.

“I definitely have more reported crimes, more calls for police service at a major department store than at the racetrack facility,” Hayes said.

Even though there is lots of drinking before and during NASCAR races, Hayes said the Illinois State Patrol made few arrests when it made a concerted effort to pull over drivers under the influence. Joliet Police Cmdr. Keith Turney admitted officers are a little more tolerant than normal during races.

Along with keeping the peace, even critics such as Marino give kudos to track owners and police for keeping traffic moving. “They really did a great job last year, I have to say that,” Marino said. “It seems like they’re trying to control it.”

Traffic moves predictably enough that neighbors can plan for race day to avoid getting trapped in their homes. But this year after the race, roads were clogged with stop-and-go traffic for more than two hours in the three miles between the track and Interstate 80, police said.

Track noise varies

Noise is a concern for the dozen homes within an eighth of a mile of the track.

Standing in a yard on Silver Maple Lane, the noise level reached 78 decibels, comparable to a neighbor’s lawn mower. But inside Joyce Marino’s house, the race could barely be heard over the conversation.

The noise is not restricted to big racing weekends. The track allows racing teams and driving schools to run cars there 80 days a year. Marino’s husband, Frank, said the testing is just as loud.

Residents who live farther from Chicagoland Speedway don’t worry much about the noise.

“It depends on the wind direction,” said Ciuffini, who lives two miles away. “It’s not a great annoyance. There’s more noise from the regular truck traffic than there is from the racetrack.”

“You hear it, but it’s not a nuisance,” agreed Bob Fritz, who lives four miles away in Manhattan.

Monday: The partying starts days early.

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