Published September 2004

Green flag for Marysville?
North county is one of a handful of Northwest sites eyed by ISC

©2001-2004, Photo provided courtesy of Kansas Speedway and International Speedway Corp.
International Speedway Corp.’s NASCAR track in Kansas City, Kan., is similar in design to one proposed for north Marysville by city officials, Snohomish County and the Snohomish County Economic Development Council.

By John Wolcott
SCBJ Editor

The NASCAR race is on ....

Not the car race, the site race.

Snohomish County and Marysville political leaders and the Snohomish County Economic Development Council feel they have the inside track and the lead position in the heated competition with half a dozen other Pacific Northwest locations vying to attract the attention of the International Speedway Corp.


In my editorial in the August issue of the Snohomish County Business Journal, Arlington Mayor Margaret Larson was erroneously listed among supporters of the ISC/NASCAR racetrack. She said she is continuing to study the proposal and its potential impact but has not committed herself to the project.

— John Wolcott,
SCBJ Editor

The builder of mammoth, multimillion-dollar high-tech ovals for 200-mile-per-hour NASCAR stock cars, the ISC is actively scouting sites for its first Pacific Northwest racetrack. Its goal is to find a 500- to 750-acre site for hosting the popular races, perhaps including one of the spectacular Nextel Cup competitions that rival football’s Super Bowl in crowds, excitement and cash flow. The north Marysville site would be 600 to 750 acres, depending on two different site development plans.

According to a study by Seattle’s Berk & Associates for the Checkered Flag Task Force, a coalition of civic and business leaders in the Puget Sound area, a speedway hosting NASCAR’s most popular races could boost the regional economy by $87 million to $122 million annually with just three weekends of racing.

Fans often arrive in RVs or stay in local lodging for a week’s mini-vacation, enjoying several days of events and activities building up to the race itself, with fans often spending $1,500 or more during their stay.

Image courtesy of the city of Marysville
According to a proposal sent to the International Speedway Corp. by Snohomish County, the city of Marysville and the Snohomish County Economic Development Council, a 750-acre site north of Marysville (outlined in yellow above) is one possibility for developing a NASCAR racetrack.

Construction of the track and a 75,000-seat grandstand — with 68 luxury suites for another 2,040 fans — would provide another $140 million for the site’s economy, according to the study. Berk’s report did not include estimates of commercial development expected to grow up around the track site.

What’s the Northwest draw for NASCAR? It’s an entirely new region for NASCAR, offering a population of 7.5 million people within a 200-mile radius — from Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, British Columbia.

As the Florida-based ISC and NASCAR enterprises — both controlled by Brian and Lesa France — continue their strategy of expanding nationally away from their roots in North Carolina, the Pacific Northwest is inviting territory. The closest NASCAR racetrack is in California.

This wave of expansion, at the expense of older and smaller Carolina tracks that are losing NASCAR races to newer and larger tracks, began in the 1990s, according to Ben Blake, senior editor of Racer magazine.

“Through the 1990s came a great wave of track acquisitions and new track construction, with ISC and Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. emerging as the dominant powers,” Blake wrote in February. “With growing interest from Big TV came the lightbulb that ... NASCAR should be, and could be, in the big TV markets — Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, etc. Hence the new tracks at Fontana, Las Vegas, Chicago (Joliet) and Dallas, and the fevered push ... to get something, anything, done in Greater New York.”

With seven tracks within a 200-mile radius in North Carolina, NASCAR/ISC “set about thinning the herd,” Blake said, with the goal of “reducing the perception that NASCAR was a Southeastern concept” and establishing it as “a national sport.”

That’s why ISC executives began contacting Washington and Oregon communities in November to explore interest in siting a Northwest track for NASCAR races. Since then, community reactions have ranged from dreams of “master planned” economic developments that would boost local economies to nightmares of noisy racecars and congested roads gridlocked with race fans.

Locally, elected officials and economic development groups began backing the concept, while “pro” and “con” citizen groups such as Fans United for NASCAR (FUN) and Snohomish County Citizens Against a Racetrack (SCAR) were formed to express their opposing views. Others have taken a wait-and-see attitude.

Snohomish County’s north Marysville site is competing against a private site proposal in Kitsap County by an unnamed developer, submitted through the Kitsap Regional Economic Development Council, and a site near Yelm in Thurston County. A citizens opposition group has been formed in Yelm, and the mayor’s public support for the idea has raised talk of a recall against him.

In Oregon, there are potential sites near Portland, Ore., including Woodburn, Troutdale and Grand Ronde, and a site at Boardman in Eastern Oregon. The Oregon Sports Authority plans to make a strong bid for the NASCAR speedway as soon as agreement is reached on the best location to promote.

Snohomish County supporters believe they have a site with the largest area for development, in the midst of other commercial development and close to the Tulalip Tribes’ giant Quil Ceda Village casino, retail centers and future entertainment attractions. It’s also the most central location to draw from Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, population centers.

“We see this track as a centerpiece for additional economic development in north Snohomish County,” said Marysville Mayor Dennis Kendall, an unabashed supporter of the ISC/NASCAR proposal. “How is that area going to be developed? Like a Kent Valley filled with warehouses and light industrial businesses, or with this track as a master-planned site that will contribute more economically with only a few races a year than all of the other types of piecemeal development that could go there.”

Kendall said the site provides opportunities for developing ball fields and recreation facilities on the open, grassy parking acres set aside for the occasional NASCAR races. Hiking and biking trails could be built; Edgecomb Creek could be restored for salmon spawning. The racetrack could spur development of an intermodal transit station north of Marysville for bus and train facilities, similar to one that opened in August in Mount Vernon.

“This is the way to bring in other development, as the Fontana, Calif., track has done. Having a NASCAR track provides national media attention and recognition,” Kendall said, adding that the Arlington Airport, too, could benefit “if the track spurs additional air traffic that leads to establishing a permanent control tower and an instrument landing system.”

Marysville Chief Administrative Officer Mary Swenson said, “Experimental planes will still be a huge part of that airport. ... The ISC said it will not operate the same weekend as the Arlington Fly-In (which draws 50,000 visitors each year) ... also, even under FAA rules for restricting airspace during a NASCAR event, planes can still take off and land, they just can’t fly over the stadium.”

Still, in June the Arlington Airport Commission passed a resolution opposing the siting of a NASCAR facility near the airfield, noting that the airport contributes substantially to the local and regional economy and needs to retain its traditional recreation, sport and general aviation role. The resolution also noted that the Washington state Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division land compatibility guidelines, incorporated in the airport’s master plan, oppose developments with large concentrations of people that would encroach on the airfield.

Arlington Mayor Margaret Larson, City Administrator Leland Walton and the City Council have taken a wait-and-see posture, knowing they are not among the signers of the proposal to the ISC but recognizing that their proximity to the racetrack site gives them no choice but to be involved at some point.

“We’re not against Marysville and the county but our first duty is to support our citizens. The majority of the (residents) around the track (site) are Arlington citizens,” Larson said.

“There’s not enough factual information now to make a conclusion,” Walton said. “We’re being careful and open minded, accumulating all the facts we can get for the council and to communicate to the citizens. At some point, we’d like to poll the community once we have (enough) information for an informed decision.”

A recent telephone survey of Snohomish County residents conducted for the FUN group showed “the public understands that NASCAR in north Marysville can be a solution to our transportation needs,” said Gigi Burke, co-owner of Crown Distributing Co. in Arlington and chair of FUN. “Transportation improvements needed to handle a surge of traffic on two to three race weekends a year will be available year-around for use by our community.”

Critic Tiffanie Kilmer of SCAR has told the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and City Council that the grassroots organization believes claims of huge economic gains from the racetrack for north Snohomish County need to be put into perspective.

“Studies have shown that economic studies undertaken by political groups with a vested interest in the outcome often do not take into account the costs to the community,” Kilmer said. “Profits from the project do not go back into the community but instead to a corporate owner, while debt typically remains the responsibility of taxpayers.”

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon sees the ISC project as a positive alternative to the piecemeal development that would otherwise fill the 750-acre site eventually.

“That land will develop. If we can get it done the right way, I think it could add value and great benefit to our community, including open space, public amenities and attracting more business development,” Reardon said. “If businesses and homes developed instead, they wouldn’t generate the revenue needed to finance the level of services they would need (such as roads, utilities and schools). We need to have (developments) in Snohomish County that can offset those costs. The racetrack presents one such opportunity.”

If the ISC chooses the Snohomish County site, Reardon said approving the final plan “will be a public, transparent process. ... If the (final plan) isn’t done to our needs, we’re not interested in pursuing it further ... we would still have learned a lot from the process.”

Related: Track opponents wary of "event-driven economy"

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