Friday, May 11, 2001

Track drives tourism boom

'It's like what Toyota did to Georgetown.'

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SPARTA — In its first year of operation, the Kentucky Speedway roared off to the finish line flat out, with a nearly seven-fold increase in tourism spending.

        The start, many remember, wasn't so smooth. Last June, the $152 million speedway's inaugural event was marred by muddy parking lots and 10-mile trafffic jams.

        But as the speedway prepares to open its second season Friday, gravel lots have replaced much of the grass, and new traffic patterns and road improvements are expected to resolve many of last year's traffic nightmares.

[photo] Carol Farrar (right), owner of the Sparta Department Store, and her daughter, Ann Carter, say business has grown year-round.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        More importantly, government leaders and tourism officials are crediting the race track with single-handedly accelerating economic growth in this once quiet rural county.

        Just this week, Gov. Paul Patton announced that tiny Gallatin County — the smallest in area of Kentucky's 120 counties — saw a record-breaking increase in tourism spending last year, thanks to the speedway. That jump from $2.9 million in 1999 to $23.4 million in 2000 represents the largest percentage increase in tourism expenditures statewide, said Christa Bunnell, communications director for the Kentucky Tourism Development Cabinet.

        “We're talking 289,000 visitors,” to this county of 7,870, Ms. Bunnell said of Kentucky's third-fastest growing county. “And that's with the speedway operating just six months last year.”

        During 2000, the speedway was open 80 to 85 days, including three race weekends, a Metallica concert, and various activities, such as driving schools, said Tim Bray, the speedway's director of communications.

        The speedway was among projects benefiting from Kentucky's Tourism Development Act, a 1996 law that lets developers receive a tax rebate of 25 cents of every dollar spent at a significant tourist attraction for up to 10 years.

        This year, with the speedway's new driving schools, auto shows, the testing of race cars and the addition of the biggest race yet — an early sold-out NASCAR Busch 300-miler on June 16 — attendance could hit 600,000, said Jerry Carroll, Kentucky Speedway chairman.

        “When I look at the economic impact, it's not what happens in Gallatin County alone,” Mr. Carroll said. “We're seeing a ripple effect, where people are stopping in the surrounding counties and spending money.”

        The four counties surrounding Gallatin — Carroll, Owen, Boone and Grant — all saw their tourism expenditures increase last year.

        During the speedway's initial season, neighboring Carroll County's tourism income jumped $7 million, and local businesses saw increases in food sales, motel occupancies and gasoline sales on race weekends, Carroll County Judge-executive Gene McMurry said.

        “This year, I understand our motels are at 100 percent occupancy for most of the race weekends,” he said.

        A Best Western Motel is scheduled to open in Carrollton within the next two months, and several other chains recently have expressed interest in locating in Carroll County, Mr. McMurry said.

    With about 30,000 race fans expected today and Saturday at the Kentucky Speedway, state highway officials have adopted a traffic management plan for dealing with the increased traffic.
    Traffic is expected to be at its peak on Saturday before and after the ARCA RE/MAX Series Kentucky 150, which begins at 2 p.m.
    From Greater Cincinnati, where 80 percent of the race fans are expected to be traveling to the Speedway, fans are encouraged to take Interstate 71 and US 42 to the racetrack.
    Spectators traveling to the Kentucky Speedway from Lexington are asked to travel to Frankfort and take US 127 north to the Speedway.
    New this racing season are electronic informational signs along I-71 and overhead lane lights on Ky. 35, between the interchange and the Speedway.
    Kentucky State Police also will direct traffic before and after the event.
    To avoid getting stuck in traffic, Mark Cassis, general manager of the Kentucky Speedway, suggested that race fans leave at least a couple of hours before an event.
        The speedway also brought Gallatin County clout in Frankfort when it came to getting long-promised road projects under way, said Ed Foley, president of the year-old Gallatin County Chamber of Commerce. Those roads, in turn, will spur more development in the form of motels and restaurants, which will generate more jobs for area residents, he said.

        “It's like what Toyota did to Georgetown,” Mr. Foley said. “It wasn't just the plant. It was everything that went with the plant.”

        However, that growth also has generated growing pains.

        While many merchants say they're busier than ever, long-time residents of this rural area say they're upset with the traffic the speedway has generated.


        There's also been no love lost between Mr. Carroll and Sparta officials. A suit filed by the Kentucky speedway in Gallatin Circuit Court seeks to de-annex the speedway from Sparta, on the grounds the city improperly annexed the property and improperly collected more than $27,000 in taxes and fees since 1998.

        Another suit filed last month on behalf of Gallatin County taxpayers asks that a bond issue used to finance the speedway be declared invalid because it is supposed to be used for industrial projects. Lawyers for the speedway have said the suit is without merit.

        Naysayers aside, local entrepreneurs see dollar signs when they look at the track.

        Near the speedway, campgrounds are quickly replacing farms.

        In Sparta's two-block downtown, Carol Farrar, owner of the Sparta Department Store, a grocery with tables where locals often sit and talk, has seen steady year-round business from racing teams, driving schools and construction workers during the past year.

        “On race days, we don't really have a lot of customers,” Mrs. Farrar said. “When they get this close to the track, they don't want to stop.”

        A year ago, Mike Riportella opened the Pit Stop Grille and Racers Premiere Gentlemen's Club a half mile from the track. Since then, he has opened The Finish Line, a remodeled convenience store and gas station; and the speedway Inn, a 20-room extended-stay motel that stays filled with travelers passing through and construction workers.

        “The speedway's a nice addition to our business, but we don't live and die by it,” Mr. Riportella said.

        Land prices also have shot up.

        “The speedway land was purchased for about $5,000 an acre,” said Debbie Wright, a real estate agent in Gallatin and Carroll counties. “Before then, we were seeing land sell for about $2,000 an acre in that area.”

        Later this month, the Gallatin County Fiscal Court is expected to authorize creation of a tourism commission to promote the area's growing tourism industry. County leaders also are in the process of setting up a planning and zoning department to control the growth.

        The speedway also has prompted:

        • The widening of a three-mile stretch of northbound Interstate 71 beginning at Ky. 35 near the speedway so that it can be used for through traffic after the event, allowing two lanes for traffic exiting the speedway.

        • A new $35.8 million interchange and connector road is under construction two miles southwest of Ky. 35. The connector will be completed in two stages, and will extend from I-71 to US 42 at Markland Dam when it is finished in 2003. Promised years ago to benefit steel plants in Gallatin and Carroll counties, it also will give the speedway a second entrance and exit onto I-71.

        • An interchange at Ky. 35 and I-71 also was improved and Ky. 35 was widened last year, thanks to the speedway, local officials say.

        “We're getting road work we could only dream about before the speedway,” said George Zubaty, Gallatin County judge-executive.

        • Gallatin, Carroll and Owen counties also want to build a regional airport on 297 acres next to the Kentucky Speedway to serve their growing business and entertainment industry.

        Among the smaller businesses benefiting from the speedway are The Sparta Quik Stop, which had its best year ever last year, 13-year owner Marty Mylor said. He said the speedway's four race weekends were like having four extra Fourth of July weekends.

        Mrs. Farrar of the Sparta Department Store also can claim a personal benefit from the speedway.

        In February, her daughter, Ann, married Chad Carter, whom she met when he was doing surveying work for the new racetrack.

        “When people ask me what the speedway did for me, I tell them it brought me a son-in-law,” Mrs. Farrar said.

       Enquirer reporter Susan Vela contributed to this report.

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