Although the Baltimore County government has shifted into high gear for the $100 million auto speedway proposed in Middle River, many area residents are beginning to express doubts about an attraction touted as a centerpiece of the east-side economic revival.
One community association near the site has voted overwhelmingly against the track because of fears about the environment and traffic. Other area residents, meanwhile, are raising questions about grass-roots lobbying by the Middle River Racing Association.
"Right now, concerns about the environment, traffic and noise bother a lot of people," Philip O. Edwards, president of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association, said yesterday.
Despite such criticism, racing association officials remain optimistic that east-side residents will back the track. They say the speedway, planned for a 1,000-acre site near Martin State Airport, could one day attract tens of thousands of fans to NASCAR Winston Cup racing, driving the area's economy.
John B. Gontrum, a racing association attorney who has attended many community meetings, said, "Local support is pretty good. We presented to the County Council 13,000 signatures of supporters for the speedway, most of whom are from the area, so that should be some indication.
"My job is to listen to these issues, which are important to these people. I don't believe in shouting down people who don't agree with you."
Michael Alfinito, a spokesman for the racing association, downplayed last week's vote by the Bowleys Quarters group, an 83-17 split against the speedway.
That rejection, he said, is "not overwhelming. It gives us a benchmark from which we can work."
Meanwhile, the county bureaucracy is moving fast to clear the way for the track.
This week, county planners asked for a change in zoning laws so "Professional Automobile Race Parks" could be built on a minimum of 200 acres in three manufacturing zones.
The request from planners came after a June 4 County Council resolution asking for a recommendation within two weeks -- a process that normally takes several months. The planning board will schedule a public hearing and vote on the changes, which then will go to the council.
But many Bowleys Quarters residents are more cautious. They and other critics fear that several hundred acres of wetlands will be disturbed to build the track. They also say noise and traffic will disrupt peaceful neighborhoods.
Edwards said, "We all want something to happen on the economic development side to build up the area, but we can't be desperate and jump at first offerings.
"It sounds great, nationally recognized drivers, big sponsors, bringing in lots of money and sponsorships. But suppose they don't get the financial backing and we wind up with a rinky-dink attraction instead."
Gontrum said he had no update on financing plans for the track, which is being designed to hold 40,000 fans and possibly expand to 100,000.
Some community leaders also question the lobbying tactics of speedway backers.
At a June 3 community meeting in White Marsh on the project's impact, some leaders were surprised to find speedway supporters from Dundalk and other neighborhoods outside the area.
"It's like cheating at cards," said Adam E. Paul Sr., president of the White Marsh Civic Association. "We take a vote next month and voting will be reserved for members only. At this point, I am opposed to the speedway at its present location -- put it closer to Eastern Boulevard."
The Bowleys Quarters group conducted its vote on the issue carefully. Edwards said only validated members voted because of concerns that the racing association was encouraging backers to attend community meetings.
Alfinito said his group mails notices carrying the Middle River Racing Association letterhead to "community members to encourage raceway supporters to attend these meetings. We're certain there will be other votes at Bowleys Quarters and we will be sensitive to the concerns voiced there."
Another raceway critic, Howard Sheckells, was surprised by the reaction to his brief letter in the Essex Times on June 12.
It read: "If the rich people backing the raceway think it is so beneficial to an area, why don't they put it in their own community? Thanks for your time and attention."
The day after the letter was published, Melissa L. Berge, the racing association's chief executive, called him at home.
"She sounded very pleasant but was upset because I sent the letter to the paper," Sheckells said. "Mike Alfinito then got on the phone, too, was pleasant but said that I was not really informed about everything the raceway could do for Essex-Middle River."
Alfinito said they called Sheckells because Berge "is a personal friend of the [Sheckells] family. We both wanted to speak with him, tell him about how the raceway could benefit the community."
Sheckells, a retired Postal Service employee, said the reaction didn't stop there. He later received an anonymous letter that read, in part:
"Have you noticed there are no polo fields in Essex? Likewise the rich residents of Worthington Valley and similar areas would not support racetracks.
"Essex, Middle River, Dundalk is the area where the track and its supporting fans belong. Got it Howard? This is not rocket science or brain surgery. Does your mother still help you tie your shoe strings?"
The letter did not anger Sheckells. He said he learned to tie his shoes long before going into the Army infantry in World War II.
"The point is I'm still against the raceway because it will be too crowded and noisy," he said. "They should stop trying to shove this down our throats."
Pub Date: 6/21/97