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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 3, 2006

Raceway debate picking up speed

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer


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Chun Oakland

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With Hawai'i Raceway Park closing over the weekend, disappointed and divided racing fans want the city to either take over the racetrack or get state financial help to build a new motorsports complex and save racing on O'ahu.

Dirt track racers want the city to condemn the racetrack in Campbell Industrial Park through eminent domain and purchase the land with the help of the state so it can be restored for racing.

Other racing fans want state lawmakers to approve a $50 million tax credit to attract investors to a new racing complex at Kalaeloa.

Several hundred racing fans rallied at the state Capitol in February 2005 in a show of unity behind the tax credit. But since Mike Oakland, the president of Hawai'i Motorsports Center, announced in January that the racetrack would close when his current lease ran out this month, racers and fans have broken into bitterly competing camps.

Dozens of dirt track fans protested against the tax credit at the Capitol on Thursday, waving checkered flags and going from office to office to speak with lawmakers. Evelyn Souza, one of the protest organizers, said Oakland has refused to commit on whether a new motorsports complex would have a dirt track.

"Racing as we know it today will end," Souza said.

Oakland has worked behind the scenes at the Capitol and, with the help of his daughterin-law, state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu), is urging Senate and House lawmakers to move the tax credit before an important procedural deadline at the end of this week.

Oakland said he would consider a dirt track as an option at Kalaeloa but will not make any guarantees. He said dirt track fans have turned against him. "This is now a last-minute effort to discredit everything that has been done," he said.

The bad blood also is related to the fact that Campbell Estate has said it has a contract to sell the land to an affiliate of Oakland's. A Campbell Estate spokesman and Oakland said they are bound by a confidentiality agreement not to name the affiliate or discuss plans for the property. But several people watching the deal have noted there was a resolution proposed at the City Council last December to rezone the land from agricultural to industrial, which would substantially increase its value.

Oakland said that if the tax credit is approved to help with financing, he has other agreements in place for land that could be swapped with the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which owns the Kalaeloa parcel being eyed for the new complex.

The loss of the motorsports center, which has hosted drag racing, dirt track racing and motorcycle racing, has been crushing for racers and fans who have no alternative on O'ahu. Racers and police have said they fear that closing the racetrack will lead to more dangerous street racing or off-road racing.

"I think it makes great sense for us to recognize motorsports," said state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), who has become an ally of the dirt track racers.

City Councilman Todd Apo said he supports saving the existing racetrack while building a new complex that could be used by local residents and attract national and world class events. "My concern is if we don't have a racetrack, what will happen with racing out in our community?" he said.

Last week, the council's planning and intergovernmental affairs committee deferred resolutions that would have condemned the land and asked the state for matching funds to help buy the property. But the resolutions can be brought back before the council again.

At the Capitol, the Senate Ways and Means Committee has tentatively set aside $1 million in the state budget to help the city buy the land.

In a possible setback for Oakland, state Sen. Brian Taniguchi, D-10th (Manoa, McCully), the committee's chairman, has asked Hanabusa to oversee the racetrack issue, and Hanabusa opposes the tax credit.

"I don't want to see it revived," Hanabusa said.

Other lawmakers are starting to receive what one House aide described as "stacks of testimony" as both camps lobby for a solution. Souza and the dirt track fans treated lawmakers to lunch at the Capitol a few weeks ago and hand-delivered material to offices on Thursday. Oakland's supporters have distributed compact discs to lawmakers explaining the history of the racetrack and the need for a new complex.

Oakland also has a potentially valuable ally in his daughter-in-law, Chun Oakland.

Chun Oakland wrote a March 28 letter asking Taniguchi and state Rep. Dwight Takamine, D-1st (N. Hilo, Hamakua, N. Kohala), the chairman of the House Finance Committee, to pass the tax credit bills.

The letter, signed by a majority in the Senate and nearly half of the House, describes the economic, recreational and educational benefits of a new complex.

Chun Oakland, aware of the potential conflict of interest, did not sign the letter to Taniguchi and Takamine. She also was excused from the vote last session on the tax credit when it passed the Senate, and she said she would not vote if it reaches the floor this session. Chun Oakland did help collect signatures on the letter in the Senate, while state Rep. Jerry Chang, D-2nd (Hilo), helped circulate the letter in the House.

Chun Oakland said no one asked her to draft the letter. She said she wanted to give her colleagues more information about the tax credit to help them make a decision but did not want to personally influence Taniguchi or Takamine.

"I didn't sign it, because that's where I felt there was inappropriate influence if they saw my name on there," she said.

The state ethics code prohibits lawmakers from using their official position to grant unwarranted privileges, but any activity that is considered part of their legislative functions including drafting bills, resolutions or statements is allowed.

Under the Senate's rules, the Senate president can excuse a senator from voting if the senator discloses a monetary or personal interest in the legislation.

"I think my father-in-law has been very cautious about getting me involved, and I have not wanted to be involved," Chun Oakland said.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.