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Opposing sides on NASCAR go head-to-head

The proposed Kitsap County NASCAR racetrack was addressed in a wide-ranging debate Monday night, marking the first time supporters and opponents spoke in a forum that was not slanted toward one side or the other.

An estimated 125 people gathered in the North Kitsap High School auditorium. The Poulsbo Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, where questions were taken from the audience and asked by a moderator.

The allocated 90 minutes allowed the asking of only half of the questions collected from the audience.

The questions covered infrastructure improvements, the financing proposal, traffic, ecology, security and public input, among other topics. The meeting was for the most part cordial, except when a spectator shouted, “You need to get your facts straight!” to one speaker, and racetrack supporter Rick Flaherty muttered, “You’re reading different newspapers than I am,” in response to an opposition speaker.

The Checkered Flag Club, arguing for the racetrack, was represented by Flaherty, Pete Crane, and Stacey Tucker.

The anti-racetrack argument was voiced by Ray McGovern, Helen Punches, and Bill Fischer, representatives of the Coalition for Healthy Economic Choices in Kitsap (CHECK).

Many of the attendees were familiar faces from past hearings, but as they pleaded their respective cases, more questions than answers emerged.

This went to the very heart of the proposal and the idea that even if the Legislature creates a racetrack commission and approves a bond issue, the project may not proceed.

For example, the racetrack’s effect on Hood Canal and Puget Sound will not be determined prior to the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement.

“Any issues that arise during an EIS will need to be mitigated,” Crane said. “If they cannot be mitigated, the plan cannot go forward.”

McGovern said that the racetrack’s proximity to the Bremerton National Airport could restrict the airspace, and preclude flying over crowds when a race is occurring.

“It’s possible that Homeland Security would grant these planes an exception, but we don’t know that yet,” he said.

The unrepresented International Speedway Corp. was the elephant in the room. Several questions concerned its actions, which the pro-racetrack panel could not answer. Said Flaherty, “The Checkered Flag Club is in no way affiliated with ISC. We are just citizens who want to see the racetrack in Kitsap County.”

Marketing consultant Rich Johnson, who is working for ISC as part of Great Western Sports, attended the meeting and reported back to headquarters that it was “nothing earth-shattering.”

“I don’t think there was anyone there who was swayed by the arguments,” he said. “Our supporters showed up in the same numbers as theirs.” 

Racetrack opponent Charlie Burrow agreed, saying, “If I was neutral, I don’t know if I would have heard anything that would have changed my mind.”

The shared public/private financing provides a point of objection for many racetrack opponents, who say they would accept the project otherwise.

“I don’t see why a cash-rich dollar company needs our money to construct its facility,” McGovern said. “They want to reduce their risk by 50 percent and make themselves into a quasi-public company that doesn’t pay taxes.”

“Once we pay off the bonds, the money will go into the county coffers,” Crane countered. “If we have enough vision to think of our children and grandchildren and can look ahead 25 years, this proposal makes a lot of sense.”

“A business is always going to look for opportunities that benefit them,” Flaherty said. “This is a good business deal for ISC, which is why they’re doing it. But as they are making sound business decisions for themselves, nothing is set in stone.”

The issues were interrelated. The ability to pay off the bond tied in to what will happen if ISC does not follow through in its promise to bring in a NEXTEL Cup race, which would likely result in declining attendance.

Tucker said ISC — as a business — would not put down $165 million and sign a 50-year lease if it intended to abandon the project.

This wasn’t good enough for CHECK.

“You have to assume that NASCAR racing will be extremely popular for the next 30 years,” Punches said. “You need to assume that people will come all the way out here to see races and that every fan will spend $1,000 when they’re here. If you assume all these things, you don’t have to worry about paying off our bond.”

Responding to a question about why there will be no direct vote, McGovern said, “We have a republican form of government, where we elect people to represent us. We have the opportunity to vote them out of office if they make decisions we do not like, and we can’t expect to get a vote on everything that comes up. On this issue, it would be nice for them to take an advisory vote.”

The three county commissioners attended but did not participate. After the meeting, Central Kitsap Commissioner Patty Lent said county residents should go to primary sources to develop information, but promised to develop avenues of public input.

“I will pay for a wide-ranging survey asking the citizens how they feel,” she said. “We will get as many people as we can to participate in this, not just a few hundred.”

A second debate between the Checkered Flag Club and CHECK is scheduled for June 21 during the regular meeting of the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce.

For more information, call (206) 842-3700.

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