Monday, June 19, 2000

Speedway gives town some hopes and doubts

Sparta residents split by a 'love-hate' relationship

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SPARTA, Ky. — Frank Marshall sat in front of the Heavenly Creations antique store with a pack of Marlboros, his words disappearing in the roar of a passing train.

        The trains haven't stopped here in years.

        “It's a love-hate thing,” the 51-year-old Sparta resident said of the relationship between the Kentucky Speedway race track and the small town it calls home.

        On the heels of the opening of the $150 million speedway, where thousands of fans were either stuck in mud or turned away, this community of 133 residents spoke Sunday about a future uncertain.

        “They got, what, 20 days until the Metallica concert?” said Mr. Marshall, who grew up fishing carp, catfish and bass out of nearby Eagle Creek. “We'll have to wait and see.”

        That was the most optimistic response offered.

        Some remain vaguely hopeful that the race track will increase business in Sparta's two-block downtown. That materialized to a degree Saturday, with the Sparta Department Store — a grocery with tables where locals sit and chat — reporting increased sales.

        But owner Carol Ferrar said the race track's opening might signal a day-to-day drop in business. Construction workers have for the past two years become regular customers, she said, and their work is nearly done. They know the sign in the store window heralding “Home of Sparta Baked Ham” delivers as promised. The store even got a CB radio a while back to take truckers' orders before they pull in.

        The speedway has been, on balance, good for the town's meeting place. But, Ms. Ferrar quickly added, “traffic was bad” Saturday, prompting many locals to stay home.

        Mr. Marshall said many other drivers were afraid to stop for fear they'd be unable to get back into the crawl toward the speedway 2.4 miles away.

        They're not used to traffic congestion here. The town's main street, Ky. 35, has only a blinking red light in the middle of two stores, a small post office, a gas station, the antique store, a few homes and the boarded-up train depot on the Owen County line.

        There was hope initially that the speedway would spur growth from tax revenue and an increased customer base. That quickly soured.

        In April, Kentucky Speedway filed a lawsuit against Sparta in Gallatin Circuit Court. The suit accuses Sparta of improperly annexing speedway property and collecting more than $27,000 in taxes and fees since 1998.

        “His suing us was a slap in the face,” said Rose Bundy, manager of In-and-Out Carry Out and a member of Sparta city council.

        “It's a sleepy little town and it'll never be the same,” she said. “There are some unhappy people here. People were hopeful at first but not so much anymore.”

        Mr. Marshall speculated that the speedway will “build their little city, build their burger stands, and then a bypass that will go around the little burgs.”

        On one end of the age spectrum, 12-year-old Angel Scruggs said she didn't approve of the speedway because “it brings people in we don't know.”

        On the other end was W.L. Ferrar, Carol Ferrar's father-in-law, who has lived in Sparta all of his 86 years. “It's gonna change us for the better,” he said.

        Asked “why,” he smiled, the thick lines in his face running deep.

        “I don't know yet,” he said. “It's bound to do some good, right?”

        That was, after all, the philosophy going in.


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