Owens plays mean hand of poker on racetrack

February 14, 1999|By BRIAN SULLAM

JANET S. OWENS would make an excellent poker player.

No one, including some of the Anne Arundel County executive's closest advisers, knew which way she would vote at Wednesday's meeting of the Maryland Port Administration's Advisory Council for Port Land-Use Development.

The question before the advisory committee was straightforward: Would a 61,000-seat auto racing stadium be an appropriate use of port-owned land?

In public statements on the track, Ms. Owens had been ambivalent. She acknowledged that the track would produce significant tax revenue for her tax cap-strapped county, but Ms. Owens also said that the last administration's fast-track approval process left her uncomfortable.

Behind the scenes

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger were encouraging her behind the scenes to accept the track. They argued that bringing several hundred thousand racing fans into the Baltimore region would have a significant positive impact on the area's economy.

At last week's hearing, Ms. Owens listened intently to the half-dozen witnesses, most of whom repeated arguments the panel had heard in early January.

Not until Ms. Owens offered a motion stating that the proposed track is not compatible with the port did she reveal her hand.

Then she laid out her argument, which turned out to be the equivalent of a straight flush against the track:

The Maryland Port Administration had purchased the abandoned Cox Creek copper refinery site, as well as an adjacent CSX site, to use for dredge spoil disposal.

The MPA had promised the CSX property would be maintained as a wildlife refuge or nature preserve.

Chesapeake Motorsports Development Corp., the racetrack developer, submitted plans that called for 1,700 parking spaces, but the county requires a project of that magnitude to have 15,000.

Traffic congestion on Fort Smallwood Road and in adjacent communities would interfere with the transport of goods to and from port-related businesses.

Pollution from auto emissions and the infrastructure needed to accommodate up to 60,000 race fans would disrupt the existing residential community and harm its quality of life.

The rest of the panel declined to take the opportunity to discuss her analysis of the site's shortcomings and voted unanimously to support her motion.

The lack of debate was unfortunate because some important issues were never put on the table. The most important is the economic potential of the track. Putting aside arguments about whether Chesapeake Motorsports could attract top-flight NASCAR races, the potential benefits of this project are not easily dismissed.

Chesapeake Motorsports said it would host 41 racing events. According to the company's projections, three of them would draw 60,000 fans, seven would draw 35,000 and the remaining 31 about 20,000. In total, the track could draw as many as 1,035,000 fans each year.

Raven-like attendance

Let's assume the attendance projections are wildly optimistic and should be halved. The track would still draw 517,500 people, about 170,000 fewer than the Baltimore Ravens in their 10-game National Football League season.

The economic development argument for finding a site for a privately financed track could be as, or perhaps more, compelling than the argument for the taxpayer-financed stadium for professional football.

It's hard to believe that the surrounding community is more interested in having the site used for dredge spoil than a race track, but apparently that's the case.

There is no sense in maintaining the fiction that Chesapeake Motorsports will build in Anne Arundel County. More than a year ago, Chesapeake Motorsports (then known as Middle River Racing Association) had been directed to Anne Arundel after an abortive effort to locate in neighboring Baltimore County. Anne Arundel economic development officials sifted through the county's portfolio of suitable sites and located only one good possibility -- the Cox Creek site in Pasadena.

`Anti-business' reputation?

The implications of rejecting such a large, potentially beneficial project will reverberate throughout the business community. Some may interpret Ms. Owens' actions to mean that Anne Arundel County is not hospitable to investment.

In an effort at economic-development damage control, Ms. Owens quickly issued a statement that the track would be a "boon to our state's economy" and would be "an asset to any community that has the supporting infrastructure and a tract of land large enough for a motorsports complex."

While many places clamor for multi-million-dollar projects, it takes a strong political constitution to play the hand Ms. Owens just did.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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