Opinion

Pacific Raceways must say in the race | Klaas

In today's competitive business climate, it's full-throttle to win customers.

And like auto racing, it's keep up or get out of the fast lane.

Pacific Raceways, the area's storied but tattered motorsports venue, finds itself at a crossroads. Track owners and operators must shift into high gear their ambitious plans to renovate or face the likelihood of losing big money, many jobs and the confidence of their diehard fans and racers, many of whom represent generations of families that have competed at the track since the first engine roared to life there in 1959.

Last week the track got the green light to explore its future when the King County Council adopted legislation – a call for an exploratory pilot project – to gauge possible redevelopment of the 327-acre site that features a quarter-mile drag strip and a 10-turn, 2.25-mile road course.

County officials made one thing clear: their action does not approve any expansion of the raceways, it only opens the way for all sides to study Pacific Raceways potential growth. The county initiated the demonstration project with a specific timeline for examining ways to streamline the permitting process for the mixed-use facility and, at the same time, protect the environment.

"This legislation permits for a more open and transparent process for large scale developments in King County, such as Pacific Raceways," said King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, sponsor of the legislation. "Our hope for Pacific Raceways is to attract new and retain existing large job-producing businesses in our community.

"Pacific Raceways will be a magnet for tourist dollars for South King County, drawing visitors from the Pacific Northwest and beyond," von Reichbauer added. "This is a project that will bring jobs and economic growth to the region without a cost to taxpayers. The improvements to Pacific Raceways will be an economic boost to the region and provide safe, clean fun for those who enjoy motorsports."

Owners want to move forward with a privately-funded, $130 million rehabilitation and expansion effort.

According to track president Jason Fiorito and his associates, expansion could create 864 living-wage jobs and attract major events generating $15 million per race, totaling $75 million per year of economic impact in King County.

Fiorito is bold with his expansion plans.

"It's why I get up and go to work each morning," he said of his dreams.

Time to upgrade

The Pacific Northwest remains one of the country's "last frontiers" in motorsports. The region simply isn't major league when it comes to auto racing complexes.

Nearby Portland lost its half-mile paved oval many years ago then its open-wheel CART series race that had played such an attractive role in the Rose Festival lineup. Thereafter, Portland International Raceway went from CampCar to ChumpCar.

Elsewhere, Bremerton fell far short in launching a NASCAR track. A funding mechanism never found its feet.

Closer to home, the Kent strip still runs one of the areas's last major-racing circuit stops. The National Hot Rod Association continues to visit the Kent strip each summer. The three-day Northwest Nationals remain critical to the track's financial health.

The NHRA enjoys the area, a break from the heat and humidity of other tour stops throughout the country. It also embraces the Puget Sound market, which has been exclusively its own.

Yet many of the circuit's professional drag racers, even some local sportsman drivers, aren't that wild about the worn strip. Despite the track's efforts to spruce up the amenities, many pros have questioned the dilapidated facilities.

Pacific Raceways, as resolute as it has been for better than 50 years, needs to step it up or fall behind in the race for viability.

Without an upgrade, race teams and fans will go elsewhere.

Shelton's Ridge Motorsports Park is sprouting in rural Mason County. The racing community lauds its modern, racer-designed road course. The business community welcomes the race park's impact on the local economy.

Shelton is a long way for local motorsports fans, but if you are a vintage car enthusiast looking to run on a safe and wide road course, it's well worth a visit.

With competition looming, the time is now to move ahead with plans to improve Pacific Raceways.

The process will take considerable time. Any plans to upgrade or expand the local track will face difficult challenges. Fiorito's proposal must undergo an environmental review before ground is broken.

The track will face stiff opposition from its neighbors, who stand to lose big if redevelopment ensues.

Two conditional use permits govern Pacific Raceways' development and activities. The owners of the property want to upgrade the facility to include new uses, and residents living near the noisy venue have expressed their concerns about what expansion would do to their communities.

Residents claim Pacific Raceways will profit at their expense.

Track supporters argue that a large majority of residents moved within earshot after the track was built. More and more homes went up long after the track was established, they say.

Nevertheless, the county vows to ensure public opportunity to provide input on the future development and operating standards. Such a process will tie up the project but the review and monitoring process would ensure compliance with the law and the executed development and operating agreements.

Track officials need to compromise, to work to mitigate noise and address other concerns. They need to honor curfews, offer "Silent Mondays" and listen to their neighbors. They need to stay true to permits.

Three years will likely pass before any work begins.

While neighbors are concerned about the prospects of a reinvigorated race track, cities welcome whatever an enhanced venue would bring to business.

Auburn and Kent officials support the redevelopment. The council likes the prospects.

It's time to punch the throttle.

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