Stadium agency has raceway role in bill Critics say provision could be move toward public investment

March 12, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Stadium Authority would be permitted to take a significant role in planning a proposed motor speedway in Middle River under a budget bill to be considered by the House of Delegates today.

Proponents say they are trying to take advantage of the authority's expertise, but critics of state-financed sports facilities expressed concern that the provision could be the first step toward a major public investment. Already, some supporters are seeking state money for studies of the project.

The speedway, envisioned as a site of NASCAR racing events, has been portrayed by its promoters as a privately financed project. Joe Mattioli III, chief operating officer of Middle River Racing Associates, said yesterday that he continues to see the raceway as a "self-sustaining private enterprise."

A House Appropriations subcommittee amended the budget bill last week to authorize the stadium agency to prepare studies of the raceway project's site, economic feasibility, financing and design. The full committee approved the change Friday night.

The amendment was added to the budget at the behest of Del. Kenneth Holt, a Baltimore County Republican and a subcommittee member who represents the district where the estimated $100 million Essex International Speedway would be located.

Holt said he expects "virtually all" the financing for the speedway to come from private sources.

"That's not to say that there might not be dollars requested for the study," he said.

The raceway project has attracted powerful support among Baltimore County political leaders, including Del. Diane DeCarlo, Sen. Michael J. Collins, Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, all Democrats.

Backers say the 100,000-seat raceway project would attract hundreds of thousands of racing fans from throughout the mid-Atlantic and generate hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic activity at the site off Eastern Boulevard. Plans circulated by Middle River Racing Associates call for an extensive racing complex including a convention center, luxury hotel, restaurants and entertainment facilities.

Collins said this week that he supports the effort to involve the stadium authority.

"The language is good. I'm glad it's there. I wish there were a little money attached to it," he said. Collins added that he has asked the governor's office to include money for the studies in a supplemental budget.

Judi Scioli, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's press secretary, said she was not aware of a request for supplemental funding for the studies, which are not in the governor's original budget proposal. But she said the administration supports the project and welcomes an independent analysis by the stadium authority.

The amendment specifies that the studies would help pave the way for a privately financed raceway.

However, the language was not enough to allay the concern of Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who led last year's fight against state financing for the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins football stadiums.

"The issue is the camel's nose under the tent. Once you get a self-serving study that promotes a project, it becomes more difficult to say no," he said.

Van Hollen said he did not necessarily oppose a stadium authority role in the project as long as it doesn't involve a significant expenditure of public funds. However, he said the amendment was "something to keep an eye on."

John A. Moag Jr., chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said the agency didn't ask to become involved in the project but had been approached by raceway supporters in the legislature.

"We were asked informally whether we'd be interested in doing a study and we said sure," he said.

Moag noted that the stadium authority had done similar studies when the state was contemplating the construction of convention centers in Ocean City and Montgomery County.

In both cases, the stadium authority ended up taking the leading role in financing and managing the construction of the projects. Asked whether the authority might play a similar role in the raceway project, Moag said, "I suppose it's possible."

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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