Cheney Free Press -

Looking at the bigger picture of Spokane County's Raceway buy

 

April 17, 2008



By PAUL DELANEY

Staff Reporter

Last Thursday I got to celebrate a couple of birthdays.

One was my daughter Meghan's 24th. My, how fast the years have flown.

The other was less of a birthday and more, perhaps, like a rebirth. That was Spokane County, which ended up the successful bidder in a fast-paced afternoon auction for a big chunk of Spokane Raceway Park. The sale has been as controversial as was SRP's former operator – and founder – Orville Moe.

The property was sold off at Spokane's Double Tree Hotel as part of a court order to settle claims of stockholders who invested in the complex in the early 1970s. Investors claim Moe had defrauded them out of returns on their investment, and a judge agreed in allowing the sale.

Still to be decided in court is whether the judge will accept the settlement that will disburse proceeds from the sale to the 600 plus people who bought shares in Washington Motorsports Limited, the company that built the racing complex.

The county purchased a little over 300 of Spokane Raceway Park's approximately 570 acres of property for a little over $4 million. Considering in the early 1990s, taxpayers funded some 20 times that much for the new Spokane Arena, maybe this is not all that bad of a deal afterall.

At stake was whether the land would be transformed into other uses – more housing or industrial interests in the ever-expanding West Plains – or whether it remained a unique and viable motorsports and recreational complex. One that was once – and still can be again – a top-notch regional magnet that attracts visitors and tourism dollars to our area.

SRP opened over the Memorial Day weekend in 1974 to packed grandstands who watched drag racing legends like Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme roar down the track. SRP's drag strip soon earned the nickname, Thunder Valley, because of the sunken nature of the track that had grandstands rise above it.

Through the 1980s, the facility continued to book in the names and pack in the crowds for the staging of American Hot Rod and American Drag Racing Association national events.

However, over the last 15 years, a competing event in Seattle and a once-shrinking Canadian dollar cut the crowds and name drivers disappeared. Some will say this was a well-planned effort to make sure the track never turned a profit, and thus would never have to pay a dividend to investors.

Talk surfaced following the county's successful bid that they thwarted the efforts of the private sector to purchase the property and possibly use it as a site for NASCAR's long-talked-about Sprint Cup track for the Northwest.

While that's a long-shot in some people's eyes, an awful lot of what the Spokane Raceway land has to offer is just what is needed to keep the potential big track development - pegged for the I-5 corridor in Western Washington - out of the courts and into the reality stage.

With roadblocks appearing left and right as NASCAR's race track arm, International Speedway Corporation, seeks to locate a 1-mile race track somewhere on the “wet-side,” doesn't the idea of buying a hunk of property already zoned for a motorsports facility make sense?

“It's not off the table for us to consider in the future working with a private entity to sell, or certainly manage this operation,” Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard said following the auction. “We will certainly not close any doors to the opportunity to sell this entity to the private sector.”

A very thorough feasibility study, conducted by Baskervill Motorsports Design of Richmond, Va., and commissioned by the county in anticipation of their possible purchase of SRP gives solid indication that if operated properly, the track will operate profitably and not be a drain on the taxpayers.

And while the racing complex is at the heart of the acreage, the vision goes well beyond the sound of roaring engines and smoking tires.

“The real gem of the property is the open space to the north of the track,” Airway Heights Mayor Matt Pederson said following the conclusion of the auction. “We envision creating a regional recreational and park system.” Included would be soccer and baseball fields that would allow the community to stage tournaments that add more economic benefits.

Although showing its age – and possibly more so the neglect from Moe, it's caretaker the past 34 years – Spokane Raceway Park can indeed be the facility it was promised to be when sold to investors some 40 years ago.

Maybe now that there's likely a 35th birthday, Spokane Raceway Park will have a bright future ahead of it, rather than the checkered past that has been its legacy so far.

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com

 

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