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Engines of Growth in Havre de Grace?


From the drop of the green flag, let me admit that I like auto racing. I've been to the big show at Indianapolis, Grand Prix races, Watkins Glen weekend and major events at a number of other tracks.

So the prospect of building a major motorsports complex near Havre de Grace that would attract big-time racing is something I'd find personally appealing.

On the other hand, I've been to Dover Downs on race day and have endured the backups and deafening noise and bake-oven heat. The noise and the traffic are far from thrilling to those who live and travel in the area on those Days of Thunder. Somewhat like living in the Camden Yards neighborhood when the Orioles are playing at home.

The proposed Maryland Motorsports Park on the 550 acres of Blenheim Farm off U.S. 40 could generate nearly $40 million a year in direct economic benefits, and $2 million in local tax revenues, according to a projection by the state Department of Economic and Employment Development.

That would be a major windfall for Havre de Grace, and for the county, where the Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground is the top tourist attraction.

The development would also mean more than 800 new jobs, though not necessarily full-time positions and not necessarily all filled by Harford County residents, the study noted. About 40,000 fans could be expected for major events.

The major racing facility could also help to bolster the economic image of the area, with the attendant ripple effects.

All of this, however, assumes that the enterprise succeeds: that it attracts the big money events, the cards of secondary races that keep the operations going, the automotive product-testing activities and driving schools, the non-racing entertainments that fill out the calendar and help to meet the expenses.

If the developers are going to put a good chunk of their own money into the venture, to back their vision with private investment, that's one thing. If they're looking for significant government concessions, loans, tax waivers and infrastructure construction, that's another.

There's a serious question as to whether there's enough of a growing market for such a racing complex by the time the Havre de Grace track could open in 1996. Pocono and Summit Point and Dover are already established racing venues in the area, although they differ in the types of auto racing they offer.

Is Havre de Grace going to be sufficiently different, sufficiently attractive, sufficiently financed, to compete for major events over the 2.7-mile road course?

Right now, the promoters are laying the groundwork by explaining their plans to the Havre de Grace City Council and the Chamber of Commerce. Public meetings to lay out the idea will be held later this month and in August, says D. Richard Rothman, a Timonium developer and a vintage racing enthusiast.

The track promoters need the city to annex the farm, to gain essential sewer and water services, and to rezone it for the racing complex. They also need annexation of an adjacent property to link the complex to the city limits (as state law bans noncontiguous annexations).

The decision will also involve Harford County, which can stall the rezoning of annexed land for five years if it does not approve. That delay would effectively kill the idea, the promoters say.

Certainly, the racetrack will create more noise on event days. But so do the munitions testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground, digging and blasting at the rock quarry, and the nighttime concerts at Tydings Park, to name a few well-known local decibel-lifters. The track plans to use natural swells and knolls for spectators, retaining woodlands around the site as natural noise barriers.

Handling race-day traffic, especially since the planned main entrance is off already-crammed U.S. 40, will be a problem. Developers say they are prepared to minimize that problem with minimum modification of public roads, though critics claim that will be most difficult.

For design of the facility itself, the developers say they will be consulting with the successful Road America course in Wisconsin and with Brian Redman, a racing champion and promoter of vintage auto events.

For Havre de Grace, and Harford County, the implications of the track proposal go far beyond the question of its own financial success.

Is a motorsport development on the outskirts going to change the peaceful, laid-back character and attractiveness of the city? Will increased revenues from the track offset losses from people who no longer want to live within earshot of the attraction? The idea also rekindles the old debate over whether Havre de Grace policy is unfairly tilted in favor of tourists or residents.

But the city recognizes that it must seek nonresidential development if it is to grow and thrive. (As Maryland Motorsports Park promoters point out, their plan is more attractive than building hundreds of housing units that create heavier budget burdens and demands for public services.)

The answers do not come easily. The council has seen an artist's design of the facility, but no concept or site plan or noise-level study. These studies, and a sound financial plan, will need to be examined in order to make a decision on annexation by early next year. It's an exciting development prospect for this area, but there's no need to race into it without careful planning.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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