Two years later, state's motorsports proposal still is stuck in neutral

February 11, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

* It's the week of the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of auto racing. Starting tomorrow, reporter Sandra McKee will write about the rule changes along Pit Road, the change in attitude of Mark Martin and a couple of good ol' boys, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt. Today's story updates Maryland's plans for a major motorsports facility in the future.

Gentlemen, start your engines. Now let them idle for a while.

That appears to be what the state has done in its pursuit of a major motorsports facility. Research done by the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development showed that such a facility could generate as much as $146 million a year for the state. That report is now two years old.

"Government is plodding and moving in a definite manner," said Mike Marqua, Maryland's director of sports promotions. "I hope we're not getting passed by. I think, if NASCAR or another of the major motorsports sanctioning bodies, CART and IMSA, make noise about wanting to expand and we're not ready, then I think we need to worry.

"But given the fact everyone looked at me like I had two heads when I first mentioned motorsports as a possible alternative, I think it is amazing to get this far."

"This far" is the starting line.

A research firm from Alexandria, Va., H.O.H. Associates, is conducting another study to either reaffirm the initial DEED impact report -- or disprove it.

The state study determined a multipurpose motorsports complex would produce $146 million in annual spending at the track and surrounding businesses (lodging, concessions, tickets, etc.) and would create employee income of $38 million through 3,264 new jobs.

Counting only the increases in retail sales taxes, personal income taxes and amusement taxes, state and local government would realize annual tax revenues of $8.4 million.

H.O.H. is doing a comprehensive study of the Bainbridge Naval Station site in Cecil County, which has been designated a prime location for such a racing facility. The report is not expected to be completed before March.

"It's a little premature for us to give you any impressions," said H.O.H. spokeswoman Debbie Guenther. "We have visited Charlotte, Michigan, Atlanta and Talladega [Ala.] to get familiar with the concept, but it is very early in the process."

The process seems exceedingly slow, given some of the happenings in the rest of the world. Marqua got a firsthand glimpse of those events recently, while in Dallas pursuing an Olympic Festival.

"I got up in my hotel room, turned on the news and heard that a new motorsports complex is going to be built between Dallas/Fort Worth with $50 million of Japanese money," he said. "I think they've got a great location for it, near [the airport], but I thought, 'Why not us?' "

In the time the state has been studying its motorsports options, a $25 million facility has been built in New Hampshire, a track has been built in Australia, a major project is under way in Japan, Dallas has entered the picture, and others are on drawing boards in Albuquerque, The Quad Cities (Moline, Ill., Davenport, Iowa, Rock Island, Ill. and Bettendorf, Iowa) and elsewhere.

The New Hampshire project is interesting, because 10 months after businessman Bob Bahre decided he wanted to make the investment and build the facility, he broke ground for the project that features a one-mile oval with a seating capacity of 56,000.

"We had to get the proper approvals from the town planning board, we had to do state-required traffic studies and beyond that we had to work with the New Hampshire wetlands boards and obtain certain permits," said Bahre's son Gary, the general manager of New Hampshire International Speedway, which is located within an hour and 15 minutes of downtown Boston. "We had a favorable business climate and the state and local governments were really expedient."

As far as impact studies go, Gary Bahre said they are working on it now. The track is scheduled to open April 14.

Marqua said the state has been pursuing the motorsports enterprise in an effort to make private ownership easier by finding the land (probably Bainbridge) and helping to clear the way through zoning regulations, community objections and other red tape.

But he added, "If someone had his own land and wanted to build a major facility, they certainly could go ahead with it on their own without waiting for us."

In fact, any major motorsports complex that might be built in the state will be built with private funds. The state is not interested in ownership, only in making the path to ownership easier so that it can reap the economic benefits more quickly.

If a money man, such as Bahre, decided to do it on his own, Marqua said the state would do all it could to help the project, if asked, "providing the same services the state's business and development offices do."

One day last week, Marqua passed Gov. William Donald Schaefer in a hallway in the state capital. Among a list of things the governor inquired about was where the state stood in its pursuit of motorsports. Schaefer did not wait for an answer, seemingly contented that he had reminded someone else to get moving on it.

"The state has a long tradition in motorsports, but not in the big leagues," Marqua said. "I think it is a sound idea and I think if we could get everything right, we'd be pursuing it as actively as we're pursuing the NFL. If our report comes back saying Bainbridge is a great site for motor racing I'll be out there the

next day trying to sell it [to a developer]."

In the meantime, the Navy, which owns the Bainbridge facility and is responsible for cleaning up the asbestos in existing barracks and buried oil storage tanks on the site, is having the value of the property assessed to determine how much it will ask when the state is ready to dispose of the former naval base.

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