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NASCAR revs up at island debate

Backers cite an economic boon, while foes say quality of life would be damaged.

Sunday drivers take heed.

The engines rumble as opposing sides debate whether to build an 83,000-seat motorsports race track in Kitsap County.

For Bainbridge Island, which according to an economic report would see 5,000 additional cross-island ferry passengers on race days, questions loom about potential impacts of the project on tourism and traffic.

Representatives from both sides of the issue lobbied the Bainbridge business community, which watched as a blur of statistics circled left on Wednesday at Wing Point country club during the Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

“Forget all the bad things you’ve heard or read,” said Rick Flaherty, co-chair of the Checkered Flag Club, a Kitsap citizen group working in favor of the project. “The (negative) figures are overblown.”

About 55 chamber members saw Checkered Flag representatives square off against foes of the proposed track, the Coalition for Healthy Economic Choices in Kitsap.

Both groups have been campaigning since June 1, when Florida-based International Speedway Corporation began legislative efforts for 2007 after an unsuccessful attempt to secure public funding last year.

They say the ISC would pay $166 million of the $345 million required to build a motorsports and multi-use recreational facility on 950 acres of land south of the Bremerton Airport.

Bonds, to be issued by a new public speedway authority and paid back by state sales tax credits, would fund the remainder of the project. State sales tax credits have funded other sports projects in the state. including Qwest Field.

The track, if built, could host NASCAR and regional events beginning in 2010 and would only be used for races three weekends a year.

NASCAR is the sanctioning body of one of the country’s most popular sports, auto racing. Its events draw roughly 10 million television viewers per race and sell out venues that hold as many as 500,000 people, according to published reports.

ISC failed in a bid last year to cite a track next to I-5 in Snohomish County, and the organization turned its attention to vacant land in South Kitsap.

Backers say a Kitsap facility would generate between $82.6 million and $103.9 million in combined on- and off-site spending for the three event weekends.

Proponents argue that tax credits for a race track would not impact the state general fund because, unlike projects which house local sports teams, a major portion of attendees would be out-of-state visitors, who would end up repaying the bonds by their use of the facility.

Furthermore, they say, Kitsap County would benefit from a major increase in tourism.

But while Ray McGovern of CHECK acknowledged the boon to tourism, he disagreed with the project’s funding.

“I’m not against NASCAR or the ISC,” he said. “But I am against using public money for sports facilities. I don’t want them in my pocket.”

Members of CHECK, a not-for- profit based in Port Orchard, fear any unanticipated revenue shortfalls would burden taxpayers, who would then be responsible for repaying the 25-year bonds.

They argue that projections for the track are unreliable, especially in the volatile, post-9/11 travel market.

“Leisure money is discretionary,” McGovern said, adding that the track must consistently draw enormous numbers of fans to pay for itself.

McGovern also criticized the ISC for not including profit-sharing in the plan and said there would be other impacts not outlined in the Burke Report.

“Let’s give them their 200,000 visitors,” McGovern said, referring to the projected number of attendees. “How many current tourists will be displaced (by race fans)?”

And how many, he added, will be deterred by traffic and crowds?

Bill Fischer, also of CHECK, said the county doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the massive influx of traffic that would swarm the facility during race weekends.

That includes roads and the ferry system, which would also be heavily impacted.

He also argued that the majority of out-of-town visitors would stay in Seattle or Pierce County, meaning most would only pass through Bainbridge en route to the track, spending most of their money elsewhere.

“It’s pretty obvious that this is going to be a commuting situation,” Fischer said, noting that the majority of fans are expected to use the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Still, for Flaherty and race fans who want the track built, the risks are minimal.

“Do you want people coming to Bainbridge Island and shopping in your businesses and looking at the house you’re trying to sell?”

hehe a Flaherty said. “Or do you want to put up a barrier?”

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