Residents mobilize to halt speedway Neighborhood: In eastern Baltimore County, Bill Wright says, 'I'll stand in front of the bulldozers to stop that track. And I won't be alone.'

September 15, 1997|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In this tranquil countryside -- just seven miles east of Baltimore -- folks still like to can home-grown beets and string beans, and treasure rolling expanses of emerald fields and undisturbed woodland.

A bit closer to the Chesapeake Bay, where a slow gentrification ** is transforming "shore shack" properties into expensive homes, newer residents enjoy twilight breezes on creeks like Frog Mortar and Hog Pen.

The setting is misleading. Here on Baltimore County's east side, where Rochambeau's troops camped in 1781 after the victory at Yorktown, war is back in the air.

White Marsh, Chase, Bowleys Quarters and other communities are battling plans for a $100 million motor speedway on a 1,100-acre tract off Eastern Boulevard near Martin State Airport. Armed with signs and petitions, residents stir fears of pollution, unwanted noise from thundering race cars and traffic-choked roads; environmentalists worry about the 350 acres of wetlands at the site.

Says Bill Wright, a retired steel worker who lives on 2 acres along Bird River Road, "I'll stand in front of the bulldozers to stop that track. And I won't be alone."

Supporters, meanwhile, tout the Essex International Speedway as a critical step in the revival of the economically troubled east side -- with its crime, unemployment and rundown apartments -- symptoms in a graveyard to the industrial age.

America's fastest-growing spectator sport, they say, will rejuvenate the community, bringing jobs, tax revenues and free-spending tourists. If all goes well, a 48,000-seat track -- with the potential for expansion to 100,000 seats -- could open in the summer of 1999.

"I haven't seen a more exciting proposal for the east side of Baltimore County," says Edwin F. Hale Sr., the chairman and chief executive officer of First Mariner Bank, who was raised near Sparrows Point. "I can't see a better use for that property, including a manufacturing plant. Otherwise, the area will continue to decay and fall in on top of itself."

The raceway is not the first ambitious proposal for the A. V. Williams property.

Williams, a contractor who died in 1992 at the age of 97, began accumulating real estate in the area in 1952. An enthusiastic supporter of the University of Maryland, he donated several hundred acres -- scattered across the area -- to the school. The entire property is controlled by a trust.

Other projects

Over the years, directors of the trust have been approached by many major companies interested in the property. Westinghouse Electric Corp., Saturn and Toyota wanted to build factories there; Husky, a truck-liner manufacturing firm, considered the property for its world headquarters. But all backed out because the site lacked adequate roads and other services.

More recently, a different sort of development, one geared toward tourists, was proposed. A New York investor planned an Asian theme park and trade center called Worldbridge, but that plan dissolved in 1991.

Now, many see entertainment-oriented projects as a way to boost an area that has lost tens of thousands of industrial jobs.

Joseph A. DiCara, president of the Essex Revitalization and Community Corp., a nonprofit development group, remembers as a child how red dust from Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant coated the east side's cars, houses and laundry on clothes lines.

"People grumbled about that dust and noise but accepted them because the plant provided good paying jobs," DiCara says. "But people have to accept that Main Street U.S.A. has changed and all that smokestack industry is gone or downsized."

Tourism, he says, can help replace jobs that have vanished from steel plants, auto manufacturers and Western Electric.

If the speedway project fails, he warns, "there will be a significant negative impact on the ability to bring new business to eastern Baltimore County. It will not be good."

Promise of jobs

A 1996 study by the state Department of Business and Economic Development said that annual operations of the speedway and off-site businesses would generate $189 million in sales, $56 million in employee income and about 2,216 jobs, both full- and part-time. The study also projected that the speedway would generate $8.5 million in state and local tax revenues.

But this summer, raceway officials clarified the employment figures, saying that 260 full-time jobs would be created on site with an unknown number of "spinoff" positions in hotels, restaurants and other businesses. A large number of volunteers will also work at the speedway in return for access to races, says Joseph Mattioli III, chief operating officer of Middle River Racing Association.

But wait: There is a caution flag out on this racetrack.

Officials at the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, the governing body for the most prestigious races, have tried to discourage construction of a track at Middle River, chiefly because the mid-Atlantic is already served by tracks in Richmond, Va., Dover, Del., the Poconos in Pennsylvania and Martinsville, Va.

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