Call it a potential financial “godsend” or, if you’re cynical, call it the “Pipedream 500.” But it couldn’t have been proposed in a needier spot: a $350 million speedway complex, featuring a 2-mile, NASCAR-style oval track and seating for 100,000, on a 650-acre site north of the Prineville Airport, in economically troubled Crook County.
But less than a month after news of the proposal became public, unresolved questions in the minds of Crook County officials could spell doom for the project, despite strong support from many Prineville residents and city leaders. Instead, the speedway, which would have been the first of its kind in the Northwest, may go to one of two other undisclosed locations – one possibly in the Seattle area.
Racing Unlimited, a Las Vegas, Nev. Firm formed in mid-April, offered up a long list of potential amenities, ranging from Indy car and dragster racing to industrial and commercial buildings, 35,000 parking spaces, a 1,000-unit RV park, two multi-story hotels, three restaurants – even a six-screen theater.
The financial impact of such a major project on a county still reeling from decades of timber losses would be enormous, all agree. But with lack of acceptable specifics (as yet) about financial backers and the sizable land-use hurdles – expanding Prinevlle’s urban growth boundary to provide water and sewer service – there are still more questions than answers in the minds of county commissioners. And while about 40 acres of the land are within the city, the county must agree to a proposal to sell its 620 acre for $1, or the deal won’t happen.
“They presented us with something they expected us to sign at the drop of a hat,” said Crook County Judge Fred Rodgers. “We are returning the favor and we’ll see whether it smokes them out. We just put a whole list of things down we thought ought to be out there (in the public discussion). They haven’t been forthcoming with a whole lot.”
Not true, according to both Prineville Planning Director Dick Brown and the project’s general contractor and spokesman, Stelian Onufrei of Diamond 2000 Construction in Orange County, Calif.
Pete Schannauer, Crook County planning director, said the county sent the project officials a letter last week that laid out 11 questions and “conditions we’d like to have inserted in the earnest money agreement. We’re asking and not getting really good answers.” Schannauer declined to be specific, due to the private nature of real estate negotiations, but said the requests include “a list of agreements for racing events, proof the design of the track meets major racing organizations’ requirements.”
City understands early secrecy on finances
But Prineville’s Brown said, “Half (of the county’s conditions), they couldn’t comply with if they wanted to. The county wants them to respond within 15 days. They absolutely cannot get land use permits within 15 days.” Brown added that he does believe the city could win approval of a UGB expansion within 45 days. “I’ve already written the UGB expansion proposal,” he said. “I can’t submit it until I get a formal application.”
“The other things the county wants – If I were these people and didn’t know if I could get land use approval, I wouldn’t provide it,” Brown said. He said the project’s backers are not going to offer detailed financial information until permits are in hand. “Once they divulge the names, it’s public information, then everyone and their dogs will be calling and saying, ‘Have I got a deal for you.'”
Onufrei acknowledged that he’s never built a race track before but added, “The county has all the information for us. I don’t have to prove anything. I am the one investing $350 million, not the county. They need to agree to the (land) sale, if they want to get all the benefits and the jobs and everything else.”
According to a proposed sale agreement drawn up with Charlene Boydston of Golden Eagle Realty in Redmond, there would be a projected 1,500 construction jobs for three to five years. The speedway would provide 125 full-time jobs within five years and a proposed business park another 375 jobs, along with 1,250 part-time jobs. For local governments, city planners projected more than $500,000 a year in annual franchise fee and lodging tax revenues, along with almost $800,000 in building permit fees and sewer and water connection charges.
According to Prineville planner Brown, state officials and Sen. Gordon Smith’s office have offered to help identify and obtain grants or loans for sewer, water and road improvements, including an interchange on state Highway 126.
County wants ‘proof’ of track developers’ background
Schannauer, the county planner, said he believes the biggest obstacles would be the land use approvals. “A good portion of the community thinks it’s a good thing,” he said. “There’s probably more opposed than in favor of it, but it has the potential to bring a lot of jobs.” He said the county has been asking for (but not getting) references and other projects done by the backers, “information to believe they could successfully do this. We want some proof.”
Onufrei said he believes the project is stuck in “a power struggle between the county and city.” The earnest money proposal to Prineville was exclusive, he said, but, “As of last week, it’s not exclusive any more. We are pursuing other venues. Whoever comes first is going to get it. We are negotiating very hard.” But there will be no public pronouncements about the other two possible venues, Onufrei said: “We are not going to make the same mistake twice.”
The city planner holds out little hope the county and promoters will come to terms and make the project happen. “I think somebody else is going to benefit” and get the project, Brown said. “I don’t think they (the county) can make a decision. The city’s done all they can do. It’s up to the county now. The county’s either going to come to agreement or going to kill it. It would have been a godsend.”
The Northwest is the only major region of the country without a NASCAR track; the closest is the road course at Sears Point in Sonoma, Calif., near San Francisco. Brown said he believes the track will be built elsewhere in the Northwest, possibly in the Seattle area. “A couple guys from Seattle have called here, looking for (the project promoters,” he said.
‘No risk to county,’ speedway developer claims
Onufrei said the deal’s backers intend to initially spend $10 million to $15 million to develop plans and obtain building permits, before ground is broken. “After that, we are going to disclose all the money and financing – we have to,” he said. “We’ve spent $100,000 to this point. Everyone acts like they are selling their backyard. A track like this has not been built anywhere in the world,” he added, declining to be more specific. “The most amazing fact is, everybody cries, ‘We don’t know this, we don’t know that.’ Nobody from the county has contacted me.”
“We have commitments from two brokerage houses that will finance the deal,”
he said. “There’s no risk on the part of the county. The only thing they’ve got is benefits.”
In his review of the proposal, Scott Cooper, executive director of the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce, noted that with all the land use, financing and construction obstacles, perhaps the biggest challenge would be to attract the drivers and fans needed to make it a viable, ongoing project. “It would mean attracting 1 in 13 residents of the Northwest to Prineville at least once each year,” Cooper wrote.
Brown acknowledged, “I think they probably overprojected their attendance a little bit. But if we get half of that, the impact is going to be phenomenal. Ten to 12 years ago, we laughed at Brnson, Mo., as a bunch of crazy guys, and now look. We in the city see (the speedway) as an economic bailout for us.” Brown noted that the city is growing 5 percent a year and school counts are rising 3.5 percent a year, but the job base that pays the taxes is growing less than 2 percent a year. “We’re headed for a collision,” he said. “We’re becoming a bedroom community without the tax base to support it.”