Drivers, stop your engines!
By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Andrew Gomes
With the recent closure of O'ahu's only motor sports complex, some racing enthusiasts are driving toward having the city provide track facilities, including possibly buying and reopening Hawai'i Raceway Park.
Supporters say some Neighbor Island counties provide race parks, which serve a public benefit similar to ballparks, beaches, golf courses and stadiums.
The city and state also have a history of owning or helping operate Hawai'i Raceway Park, which since April 1 has been idle on land owned by the private Campbell Estate trust in Kapolei.
But how advisable is taxpayer ownership of a motor sports complex on O'ahu?
Government sponsorship of a raceway, depending on the extent of ownership or operation, would likely involve at least a contribution of public land. Buying the shuttered raceway could cost more than $30 million. Other factors to consider include insurance exposure and operating expenses.Many, but not all, racers are convinced the city should acquire the former facility to re-establish a safe place to race, especially after state lawmakers recently aborted a bill to provide a $50 million tax credit to help finance a new world-class race park on private property.
"Preservation through condemnation of the present site is not only do-able, it is the most cost effective means to keep all of us on the track," said racing enthusiast Evelyn Souza in written testimony before the City Council last month.
City Councilman Todd Apo, who represents the Leeward Coast, believes the issue is worth exploring, and introduced a resolution proposing to acquire the raceway through the city's condemnation power known as eminent domain.
"The question for the city is going to be do we need a raceway park?" he said. "My concern is a public-safety standpoint."
Some race promoters, elected officials and citizens fear that no controlled racing venue will lead to increased dangerous racing on public streets.
Others involved in racing say that concern is overblown because events held at the park mostly involve responsible racers, including many with vehicles that can't be driven on public roads.
Apo said he believes there is a clear public need for a raceway, and wants to explore possible solutions that include condemning the existing facilities or making available an alternative site. Most likely any city role in a raceway would involve seeking a private operator, he said.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who has made an issue of prioritizing city spending into "nice-to-have" and "need-to-have" categories, has not publicly commented on the raceway condemnation idea. Bill Brennan, a spokesman for the city administration, said he was unable to obtain an official response.
Others don't support a city effort to revive the old track.
"It will cost taxpayers too much money to make the necessary safety improvements to the existing facility," Ruben Lactaoen, a Pflueger Acura service manager, said in written testimony to the City Council.
Chad Jones, a racer from Hawai'i Kai, said in testimony that the existing raceway is outdated and would need upgrading that would amount to an "expensive Band-Aid fix."
Jones and a few other racers using modified versions of a form letter also said they morally object to the government seizing private property for the benefit of a special-interest group, and argued that spending taxpayer money to acquire the existing facility would be less cost-effective than providing tax credits for a new facility.
Apo regards the use of eminent domain as a just purpose for preserving a safe form of public recreation.
Campbell Estate has argued that condemnation will interfere with a contract it has to sell the property, and therefore would cause a financial loss for the estate.
The estate, whose unidentified buyer plans to develop an industrial business park, didn't directly suggest it would file a claim against the city if its sale is derailed because of a city condemnation effort. But City Councilman Romy Cachola acknowledged there is that risk, especially if the city pursued but didn't complete a purchase using eminent domain.
"We don't want to put the city at risk," he said.
The city's condemnation of Waimea Valley Adventure Park led to such a claim by its owner, although the claim was settled and a purchase completed earlier this year for $14 million.
To thousands of racers and their supporters, dirt and asphalt tracks for high-speed recreation are treasured resources worth protecting, too.
Race car owner Laurie Miyagawa from Wahiawa urged the city to exercise eminent domain. "By condemnation, the sport of racing will be able to continue, weekly at a reasonable cost," she said in testimony. "My race car is sitting idle at home, nowhere to race. Save O'ahu's race track."
Added dragster owner Joey Milho from Waipahu in an interview: "You don't have to have a first-class racetrack. If the outer islands can do it — and the outer island (counties) don't have as much money — why can't we?"
Souza, a retired racer married to a veteran racing husband who now builds cars for their son, said there is a grassroots movement to form a nonprofit coalition of diverse racing groups to operate any government-owned race park on O'ahu.
The organization, now known as Save O'ahu's Race Tracks, also could raise money from race fees to slowly repay tax money used to acquire facilities, she said.
"Who better to run the tracks than the drag racer, the circle tracker, the drift racer ..." Souza said. "I don't think the government is in a position to run a racetrack."
Neighbor Island counties vary in their roles of ownership, investment and responsibility in racing facilities.
On O'ahu, it is not unprecedented for the city and state to take the wheel at Hawai'i Raceway Park.
The city helped out in 1989 when the raceway was forced to close for seven months because operators couldn't obtain insurance required by Campbell Estate. The city helped reopen the park by leasing the property and underwriting insurance coverage.
The agreement prompted a city feasibility assessment for establishing and operating a motor sports complex. The study, prepared by the Department of Parks and Recreation, concluded that a city facility would have a high risk of financial failure and create potential public liability.
"It is likely that public expenditures for a motor sports facility will not be completely recouped," the 1989 report said. "Any form of public ownership of a motor sports facility poses a risk that public funds will be spent to pay damage claims stemming from catastrophic accidents."
The report suggested that the city could sell a private developer land on which to build a motor sports facility, but that any long-term public financial interest was "inadvisable."
The report examined other potential sites for a racing complex, primarily private land at Poamoho and state land in Kunia, both used to grow pineapple. The sites were deemed undesirable for various reasons, including loss of prime agricultural land.
Sites off Lagoon Drive next to the airport and agricultural property in Leeward O'ahu also were considered, but rejected because they were in the path of airport and residential growth.
Concerns that the raceway would close when the city's lease agreement with Campbell Estate expired at the end of 1991 led state lawmakers to take up the effort to preserve racing in 1990. But a bill that would have set aside state land for a facility failed to pass.
Legislators, however, passed resolutions urging then-Gov. John Waihee, a race car driver, to provide land for a motor sports complex.
The 1990 resolutions stated that a motor sports facility would have economic benefits and provide an outlet for healthy competition, and also raised safety concerns that a closed raceway might result in speed demonstrations on public roads.
Waihee's administration moved to condemn Hawai'i Raceway Park, and reached an amicable agreement to buy the property for $37 million from Campbell Estate in 1991.
Gov. Ben Cayetano, who took office in 1994 and was critical of the raceway trade in part because of an appearance that it benefited a Waihee friend, traded the raceway back to Campbell for other property in 1997.
At the time of Campbell Estate's reacquisition of the raceway, spokesman Dave Rae said the site eventually would become part of a light industrial park.
Longtime raceway park operator Mike Oakland tried for more than a decade to develop a new racing complex suited to host professional events from outside Hawai'i on a site at the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station now known as Kalaeloa, but has not been successful.
Oakland, who lobbied fiercely but unsuccessfully for state help in the form of a $50 million tax credit, has said he closed Hawai'i Raceway Park because his lease with Campbell Estate was up, a zoning variance had expired and a federal mandate ordered restroom cesspools closed.
Oakland testified to the City Council that keeping the raceway open on a short-term basis would be acceptable, but wouldn't provide a safer and more user-friendly complex.
"Asking the state and county to spend taxpayer money, instead of supporting the long-term solution of tax incentives for Kalaeloa fails to address the issues of participant and spectator safety and industry growth," he said in written testimony.
Apo said he wants to further pursue the possibility of condemnation. The resolution he introduced last month along with a resolution asking the state for matching dollars to help with the acquisition was deferred for a technical reason, and will be re-introduced early next month, Apo said.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers also have shown interest in preserving the old raceway. Last week House and Senate budget negotiators approved $1 million to help with the potential condemnation and purchase of Hawai'i Raceway Park.
STATE, COUNTY SUPPORT FOR NEIGHBOR ISLAND TRACKS
A look at how state and county support for motor sports facilities varies among different Neighbor Islands:
Maui Raceway Park was developed more than 40 years ago on 189 acres of state land turned over to Maui County at the old Pu'unene Airport.
Nonprofit racing groups developed the racing facilities and continue to operate them. Facilities include a drag strip, motorcycle track, go-cart track, dirt oval track, auto-cross obstacle course and an area for remote- control planes.
The racing groups plan to organize an umbrella nonprofit to obtain a long-term license or lease for the race park to obtain loans for improvements.
Maui County uses part of the property for police department pursuit training and ATV training, but does not contribute to major maintenance or insurance of the property. However, the county did provide a nonprofit group a grant to repave the drag strip several years ago.
A mostly volunteer-run Garden Isle Racing Association on Kaua'i has operated a drag strip on state land for the last few decades or so.
Kaua'i County has no involvement in ownership or operation of the facility, which does not include other substantial improvements.
"It's a set-up and tear-down operation," said Chris Lowe, an association director. "We're pretty much a shoestring budget."
Toilets are portable rentals. Lights for night racing are the same. Fans tailgate because there are no viewing bleachers.
A race park with a drag strip, circle track, go-cart track and off-road motocross/ATV course is on state land and operated by private racing organizations.
The county built the drag strip, an observation tower and restrooms in the mid-1970s, and maintains restrooms, trash collection and some insurance responsibility.
Race organizers built the other track facilities and improvements, and also carry insurance.
The county charges rental fees to race organizers, but essentially derives no revenue because property improvements made by racing groups are credited back against rental fees.
Racing enthusiasts formed a nonprofit organization in 1995 to develop a multi-track facility for the community on 250 acres of state land using donated services and money that would likely total more than $100 million, according to Paul Maddox, president of the Hawai'i Racing Association.
Maddox said moving ahead depends on demonstrating project feasibility to Hawai'i County, which supports the effort but is not being asked to help finance the project.
Though more than 10 years have gone by, Maddox is confident the association can build the facility, which is envisioned as having a drag strip, dirt oval arena, paved road course, go-cart track, off-road cycle tracks and radio-control car and airplane sites.
"Even if it's just with shovels, I'm convinced we can do it," Maddox said. "We're not trying to build a big NASCAR track. It's pretty much a track for local folks."
Reach Andrew Gomes at email@example.com.