BUSCH
Chris Gardner  /  AP
Will NASCAR be racing in Washington? The International Speedway Corp.'s first attempt fell apart amid escalating project costs.
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updated 7/27/2005 2:45:53 PM ET 2005-07-27T18:45:53

International Speedway Corp. has intensified its courting of Washington state lawmakers as it gears up for a second attempt to build a NASCAR racetrack in the state.

ISC's first effort to build a Washington racetrack, in Snohomish County, fell apart last November amid escalating project costs. Since then, the Daytona Beach, Fla.-based company has taken a more concerted approach to cultivating state legislators, who likely will have the ultimate say on any public financing that helps pay for the project. ISC named Kitsap County as its new choice for a racetrack site in June.

Between December 2004 and April, three Olympia lobbyists met at least 81 times with lawmakers on behalf of the racetrack company, according to a review of lobbyist expense reports filed with the Public Disclosure Commission. That was more than five times the number of meetings between February and November 2004 during the period when a Northwest location or the Marysville site were being discussed, the reports show. For all its efforts in the state so far, ISC has spent a total of $151,000 on lobbying in Washington, including lobbyist compensation and entertainment expenses.

The more recent meetings took place mostly over meals in and around Olympia, at restaurants ranging from Outback Steakhouse to the more highbrow Jean-Pierre's Restaurant in Tumwater, where the dinner menu includes such entrees as New Zealand spring lamb chops and fresh king salmon topped with melted French brie. The lobbyists met with lawmakers individually and in groups, and submitted meal expenses ranging from $6 to $400.

The lobbyist expense reports also shed new light on the speedway company's wooing of state officials and legislators last year, when ISC first began looking to build a racetrack in Washington. State lawmakers took trips around the country to some of auto racing's premier events. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, for instance, had the good fortune of sitting in the owner's box the day President Bush visited the Daytona International Speedway in Florida.

The intensity of the more recent lobbying effort, which began well before ISC named Kitsap County as its new site, reflects the high hurdles that such a project may face in the state Legislature. Past controversies over public financing of the baseball and football stadiums in Seattle and current budget constraints have left some lawmakers wary of taking on a major new publicly funded sports project.

Many of the lawmakers targeted by the lobbyists are members of key committees -- like Senate Ways and Means, House Appropriations and the Transportation committees of both houses -- that will play a large role in reviewing any financing plan for the racetrack or the road improvements needed to make it work.

Whether the heavier courting of lawmakers is having any effect is not yet clear.

"We've got a long way to go before there's anything that would be acceptable to us," said Sen. Margarita Prentice (D-Renton), chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, who has met twice with ISC lobbyists this year, including one meeting where she got a direct pitch from ISC Northwest project leader Grant Lynch.

Like other lawmakers, Prentice said the initiative to repeal Washington's new gas-tax increase could bump the racetrack further down the list of legislative priorities.

"I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute. There's a move to repeal the gas tax. We'd have to help them (ISC) with the roads. Do they really think we're going to put their interests before everyone else's?'" Prentice said.

Mark Greenberg, the lead Olympia lobbyist for ISC, declined to comment on his work for ISC and referred all calls back to the company. The other ISC lobbyists are Melanie Stewart and Gene Schlatter. Schlatter, a former staffer on a joint House-Senate transportation committee, did not return a phone call.

Stewart, a longtime Olympia lobbyist, called the courting of key lawmakers "just good planning."

"You have to figure out the legislators who are going to be the most involved," she said, adding that "if all goes well," ISC would have a financing plan for the Kitsap racetrack ready by the end of the summer. The state Legislature begins a new session in January, although a few committees are meeting now and most resume meetings in the fall.

ISC project leader Lynch could not be reached for comment on the company's legislative strategy. In an earlier interview, Lynch reiterated ISC's mantra that "no new taxes" would be required to finance the racetrack, which he estimated would cost more than $250 million. At the same time, he indicated that the company would seek to capture a slice of sales tax revenue generated by a racetrack to help pay for the project.

Any financing plan that uses public funds such as the state's portion of sales tax revenue would have to be approved by the state Legislature. ISC's intensive wining and dining of lawmakers at local establishments since December contrasts with its earlier strategy of showing off its prize racetracks to Washington officials.

Between February and September of 2004, Owen and six other state lawmakers attended auto races around the country. Greenberg arranged the visits on behalf of ISC or its subsidiary, Great Western Sports Inc., according to Greenberg's expense reports.

Owen and state Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch) attended the Daytona 500 race at Daytona International Speedway in Florida on Feb. 15. State Sens. Val Stevens (R-Arlington), Joseph Zarelli (R-Ridgefield) and Don Benton (R-Vancouver) attended a race at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif. on May 2; Stevens and Zarelli brought their spouses, and Benton brought his son.

State Rep. Jeff Morris (D-Anacortes) attended a separate California Speedway event on Sept. 5, and state Sen. Jerome Delvin (R-Richland) and his wife attended a race at the Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va., on Sept. 11.

Greenberg's public disclosure reports indicate he spent some $4,800 on the race events. It was not clear exactly what he paid for, though the reports indicate that the guests paid for all but $50 per person of the stated costs.

ISC spokesman Stann Tate said Owen and five of the legislators paid for their own transportation and lodging and all but $50 of each ticket they used. Tate did not have a record of Delvin attending a race in Richmond, though Delvin himself confirmed his trip and said he paid for his own travel, lodging and all but $50 of the ticket cost.

All the races took place before ISC officially named Marysville, in Snohomish County, as its first proposed racetrack site.

Lt. Gov. Owen's office paid for Owen's travel, hotel and a per diem in Daytona, his Chief of Staff John Thompson said. The Senate paid for Sheldon's airfare and lodging in Daytona, according to Sheldon and the Secretary of the Senate's office.

The other lawmakers did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Delvin called himself an ISC supporter and said he would consider sponsoring a bill to finance a NASCAR racetrack.

Since September, Greenberg and ISC lobbyists Schlatter and Stewart have reported no race events in their disclosure forms.

The Public Disclosure Commission data refers only to lobbying of state government officials; lobbying of local officials in Kitsap County and elsewhere is not subject to the same disclosure requirements.

Lobbying team remains unchanged
As it looks to build support for a NASCAR racetrack in Kitsap County, International Speedway Corp. is deploying the same high-powered team of lawyers, lobbyists, consultants and public relations executives that worked on the ill-fated Snohomish County bid.

Along with Olympia lobbyists Mark Greenberg, Gene Schlatter, and Melanie Stewart, the team includes attorney B. Gerald Johnson of Seattle-based law firm Preston Gates & Ellis LLP, and Joel Van Etta of Seattle public relations firm Gogerty Stark Marriott Inc.

Also advising ISC is Dick Thompson, a longtime veteran of state government in Olympia who has served as, among other things, director of the state's Office of Financial Management as well as a lobbyist for the University of Washington.

Preston Gates and Gogerty Stark have previous experience with large, publicly financed sports development projects, having worked on the controversial Mariners and Seahawks stadium deals.

Johnson serves as general counsel for the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District, which built and owns the Mariners' Safeco Field, according to the law firm's Web site. He's also advising the Seattle SuperSonics as the team seeks to renegotiate its KeyArena lease with the city of Seattle.

Gogerty Stark created the public-relations campaign behind the Seahawks Stadium project, which was narrowly approved in a 1997 statewide referendum.

Johnson and Van Etta declined to comment on their work for ISC. Thompson did not return a phone call seeking comment, though Stewart, one of the ISC lobbyists, said the former state budget director is "crunching the numbers" and helping ISC work out a financing plan for the racetrack.

While many of the consultants working for ISC have remained the same, the makeup of ISC's internal team handling the Washington racetrack effort changed following the demise of the Snohomish County racetrack proposal. The company replaced corporate development chief Tom Valley with Regional Vice President Grant Lynch as head of the Northwest project.

In the meantime, the company has commissioned Seattle research firm Berk & Associates to do a "site-specific" study of potential economic benefits to the Puget Sound region of a Kitsap County-based racetrack.

Last spring, Berk & Associates did a study of the potential economic benefit of a racetrack in the Puget Sound area. That study, commissioned by a group of business leaders and economic development officials called the Checkered Flag Task Force, determined that a NASCAR track would produce between $87.3 million and $121.8 million in "total economic benefit" and generate up to 1,846 new jobs.

This new study will focus specifically on the impact and benefits to the Puget Sound region of a Kitsap-based racetrack, said ISC spokesman Stann Tate.

© 2007 Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)

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