Track backers expand site list Amid criticism, speedway developers look elsewhere

October 10, 1997|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Facing steady criticism from residents and hesitation from officials, developers of a proposed $100 million motor speedway in Baltimore County have contacted economic development leaders in several Maryland localities and Illinois about moving the project.

Joseph Mattioli III, top executive of Middle River Racing Association -- which two years ago introduced the Middle River proposal -- calls the move "due diligence, looking at other options in the region." Potential locations include Anne Arundel and Harford counties, as well as a city south of Chicago.

Speedway opponents are encouraged by the association's moves. Adam Paul, a leader of a coalition of community groups, said the developers "are getting weak; the end is near."

The search for new sites comes as supporters and opponents await an economic feasibility study on the Essex International Speedway. Next week, a draft of the study -- partially funded by the association -- is scheduled for release. It is expected to echo an earlier state report that said the speedway would benefit an area hungry for development and jobs.

"When that report is released, we'll take a look at the big picture and make our educated decision from there," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat. Gardina must approve or reject a planning board proposal to rezone the 1,100 acres of the A. V. Williams tract on Eastern Boulevard.

Speedway backers say auto racing would help revive the county's east side, bringing jobs, tax revenue and free-spending tourists. They propose a 48,000-seat track, with potential expansion to 100,000 seats.

But some officials of NASCAR, which sanctions major races, say the mid-Atlantic region is saturated with tracks. They would rather bring racing to other areas and point with pride to new tracks near Dallas and Los Angeles.

Opposition from residents presents another roadblock to the speedway.

Paul, head of a coalition from White Marsh, Bowleys Quarters, Kingsville, Perry Hall, Earl's Beach and Harewood Park, believes association officials are tired of the county's development process and unrelenting community opposition.

The white flag

"They are ready to wave the white flag of surrender," said Paul. "A behind-the-scenes representative of the association extended an olive branch, but we turned it down. We didn't want to meet with them."

Tom Leher, president of the Bowleys Quarters community group, is not so quick to declare victory.

"It's not over until it's over," he said, "but their putting money into other sites is a good signal."

Leher is concerned that talk of securing the most prized %J NASCAR races is overly optimistic.

"They have gone from talking about the glitter of Winston Cup races to events featuring Saturday night road warriors. That site could become nothing more than a huge flea market."

Speedway opponents argue that noise and pollution aside, existing roads -- even widened under an association proposal -- could not handle traffic generated by the races.

Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, says county and association officials will meet in several weeks to discuss key issues.

"We will then tell them what the county's needs are regarding the infrastructure and what we expect before there is an agreement on any track opening," Davis said.

Amid questions about the Baltimore County track, Mattioli and representatives of the Greater Baltimore Alliance have over the past several months contacted or met with officials in Harford and Anne Arundel counties. The alliance is a group of business leaders and government officials from Baltimore's suburban counties.

"We feel the developers should investigate and exhaust all possibilities in the region as a backup site," said Ioanna Nerfessis, president of the alliance.

She said Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann considered the 1,000 acres needed for the project "a stretch."

George Harrison, a spokesman for Rehrmann, said the executive rejected the association's proposal two weeks ago. He said a proposal in 1995 for a similar raceway was rejected and the "traffic and noise was enough to make [Rehrmann] say no again."

Nerfessis said Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary was approached last month. Others familiar with the events said the county economic development department heard proposals for several sites, including two within 10 miles of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Bill Badger, vice president of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., said officials have talked with Nerfessis. He would not say whether discussions are continuing, although he said selecting a site is a "challenge."

For two years, association officials have been attending community meetings to promote the speedway and address residents' concerns. Besides traffic and noise, environmental activists have protested the speedway because the Williams tract contains 350 acres of protected wetlands.

Mattioli has said he wanted to begin construction next spring.

But installing water and sewer lines on the property and extending one of two key roads -- Campbell Boulevard or White Marsh Boulevard -- will take at least four years.

Exploring alternatives

Mattioli and other association executives, have approached officials in the Maryland counties, as well as officials from Illinois and the city of Kankakee, south of Chicago.

Kankakee Mayor Donald E. Green said he visited the Pocono Raceway -- owned by Mattioli and his family -- and described it as "awesome."

This month, officials in Kansas City, Kan., said construction will begin on a $197 million speedway scheduled for completion in 2000. The Wyandotte County speedway will hold 75,000 fans.

County Administrator Dennis Hays said yesterday that the project will displace 136 houses built in the 1950s in an agricultural area. "There will be hardship upon those individuals," Hays said. "But the long-term gain will outweigh the individual impact."

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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