Raceway proposal defeated by reality Planners of track didn't understand development process

January 11, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Nancy Schwarz felt salvation had arrived.

A $100 million world-class NASCAR speedway was proposed for economically depressed eastern Baltimore County, and Start Your Engines, her collectibles and apparel shop, was suddenly hotter than Jeff Gordon's engine. When speedway developers sought community support, Schwarz delivered -- enlisting 900 local fans of America's fastest-growing sport.

Today, though, plans for the Essex International Speedway have crumbled, defeated by various forces.

Community opposition grew stronger through 1997, as residents raised fears of noise, pollution and traffic jams. Politicians, meanwhile, realized that the Middle River Racing Association's impressive claims about jobs and races were overstated. And the people bankrolling the track underestimated the development hurdles -- such as obtaining approval for a crucial access road.

Thursday, when the developers said they were shifting their sights to Anne Arundel County or the Chicago area, they were stating what had become clear during the last months of 1997 -- the Middle River location was not viable.

Recalling the association's move last January to a suburban office tower, Schwarz says, "Looking back, people felt that when MRRA moved their offices from the pit row here in Essex to the skybox in Timonium, we knew something was wrong."

Now, some Eastside residents wonder about the long-term impact on an area that has lost tens of thousands of industrial jobs.

"The speedway issue has really torn this community apart," says Nancy Hubers, a Bowleys Quarters resident who is president-elect of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce. She adds, "It's time to stop being divided. We must hope all factions can come together in a united way and work to continue the important revitalization" of the area.

The developers -- Ed and Melissa "Missy" Berge and Joseph Mattioli III -- wanted to have a speedway built by next year on a 1,100-acre site near Martin State Airport.

They lobbied several chambers of commerce and leading politicians and held many community meetings. They took supporters to other tracks for NASCAR events and made modest campaign contributions to public officials.

But they couldn't get past a major obstacle: state and federal requirements for a road linking the site to Interstate 95.

County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, said the speedway failed for one reason: poor planning. "The fatal flaw was that MRRA did not have technical information up front to evaluate the development requirements for that site," he said.

For example, an MRRA proposal to channel race traffic onto two-lane roads around the speedway site was bitterly fought by area residents -- and rejected by county officials. That forced the group to focus on an extension of White Marsh Boulevard as the crucial link to I-95.

County officials asked the developers to contribute $12 million for roads and other infrastructure. Developers also were told that the track would have to be delayed for years, while the roads were built.

"It was a fool's dream," says Del. Michael H. Weir, an Essex Democrat. "The developers wanted to push the track through so they could get racing dates, but they didn't know the developmental process. Somebody led them down the primrose path."

Meanwhile, the MRRA's ambitious claims -- that the track would serve as host to NASCAR's prestigious Winston Cup races -- proved too rosy, draining away the potential for more support.

Despite public claims by MRRA's executives, they knew the speedway was unlikely to receive clearance for a Winston Cup race. NASCAR's president said in September that the mid-Atlantic region, which has several major tracks handling the cup races, is saturated. He suggested that developers look elsewhere.

When the project was introduced, Weir says, officials and residents got the impression that MRRA wanted Winston Cup-level competition, but later "the developers were going second-rate with tractor pulls, motorcycles; they were diluting the truth."

Gardina, who was sharply criticized by speedway backers such as the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association, said he withheld his support mainly because the project would not deliver the economic boost originally claimed.

For instance, a state task force -- on which Melissa Berge and several Essex business leaders served -- released a November 1996 report that the speedway would generate more than 2,000 jobs in the area. But after repeated questioning, Mattioli said last summer that the track would create only 260 full-time jobs. Volunteers who worked on race days would be given free admission.

Says Gardina, "It was their vision they tried to sell rather than reality."

Last week, MRRA spokesman Michael Alfinito announced MRRA's withdrawal from Middle River, saying, "The vast majority of the citizens of Baltimore County wanted this project." Alfinito said he knew that 717,000 people live in the county, "but I stand by my statement."

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