Track Project Revs Up

August 23, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Car racing fans in Maryland have heard this pitch before.

Someone wants to build a major racetrack in the state, a track in Havre de Grace that could bring professional motor sports events within an hour's drive of downtown Baltimore.

This time, says developer Dick Rothman, the prospect is not just a pipe dream.

"I've been a land developer for the last 25 years," said Rothman, president of Suburban Homes in Baltimore. "This is not a field of dreams. We're businessmen, and we have a really good project that everyone can benefit from.

"Racing will take up only 17 days a year. The rest of the time it will be a park for people to enjoy."

Judging by the reactions of Havre de Grace Mayor Gunther Hirsch, the town council and planning commission chairman Volney Ford, the Maryland Motorsports Park proposal is being taken seriously.

The proposed project is for a $10 million, multipurpose motor sports complex on 550 acres off U.S. Route 40, just beyond the city's limits and within 10 miles of three Interstate 95 exits.

It would include a 2.5-mile road course designed to specifications suited to everything from vintage cars to Indy, stock and Formula One cars and an amphitheater/band shell for music festivals and picnicking areas.

The developers also have pledged $75,000 to the Chesapeake Bay Clean Up Fund and $5,000 annually to each of the five museums in Havre de Grace.

"We believe this is a serious project for three reasons," said Ford, the planning commission chairman. "They have gone into an option agreement on a very large piece of land. They've gone to the state of Maryland, and [the state Department of Economic and Employment Development] has produced a very detailed, site-specific report on the project.

"And they've spent an enormous amount of time in Havre de Grace indicating their seriousness."

Rothman, a 55-year-old who races vintage cars as a hobby, is not new to planning racetracks.

He had a similar idea for a track near Elkton 25 years ago. That 1970 venture won approval of local authorities, but when it came time to break ground, the recession hit, the money dried up and the investment firm that was to back the development went under.

"They could find no one with venture capital available," said Ford, who has looked into the failed project. "I talked to Harley Williams, a successful real estate builder in Cecil County who was part of that deal, and he has nothing but positive things to say about the business relationship.

"I find that unusual, because they all lost a little money, and when that happens, someone is always looking for someone to blame. But Williams says the business association with Rothman was excellent."

Rothman said he has six partners in the proposed Maryland Motorsports Park. He and Jim Tevebaugh, a design engineer, are the front men. Rothman said he may seek several more investors, but adds that money is not a problem.

The DEED report was completed last March and estimates the impact of seven proposed events in the 1998 season at $34.5 million, a total of 781 full-time equivalent jobs and a total annual income or payroll generated statewide at $8.8 million.

"We're taking it step by step," said Ford. "Each time they take a step forward, we invest more time on their proposal."

Earlier this month, the town council called a special meeting to consider Rothman's request to have the development site annexed to the town. About 40 area residents voiced opinions.

After the discussion, Hirsch appointed a task force to study the concerns of the residents near the proposed park.

"The objective is to find out all there is to know," said Hirsch, who is running for re-election. "The task force has about four months to work on it, and my feeling is I'm going to wait for the result of the task force before I form an opinion."

The Chamber of Commerce is looking into the economic impact on the historic downtown. One volunteer committee is looking into economic development and another into tourism.

The local police will contact police in other track towns.

Nothing is being left to chance or hearsay.

"Our attitude right now is that this is a project with enormous economic potential and appeal from the environmental land use aspect," said Ford. "But we have to consider everyone's concerns, and we're not going to make any rash decisions. We're going to get in all the facts before we do anything."

Noise, of course, is an issue, though noise here is nothing new.

For the past 20 years, until this year, Havre de Grace was the site of major powerboat races. Two major railroads and two major highways run through town.

The largest gunnery range on the East Coast is within earshot. The town is on the direct, final approach to the Aberdeen Proving Ground's major runway, which feels the landing wheels of major cargo plans, C-5s and Boeing 707s, regularly.

Havre de Grace is also in a helicopter flyway, and the Arundel Corporation does blasting twice a week.

"We've got natural woodland buffers, and we're designing the track to mitigate the noise," said Tevebaugh, vice president of the project. "Right now, we've got environmental studies, wetland studies and sound impact studies in the works."

Rothman and Tevebaugh, 54, say they are in "the third inning" of their project and are making steady progress.

They received the DEED report in March, approached local authorities in late April and put together a glossy brochure in late July. They are making the rounds of community organizations to explain their idea.

"Hopefully, we'll be breaking ground in the spring and running our first event next fall," said Rothman.

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