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More Than a Racetrack 

by TODD MIELKE & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & itizens expect their elected officials to plan for the future of their communities. Millions of taxpayer dollars can be wasted when local governments are reactive instead of proactive. Attempting to anticipate the needs 20 to 30 years from now can be a guessing game, but when done reasonably, it can pay huge dividends to a community.

Case in point: Some neighborhoods are growing rapidly. We expect school districts to purchase property for future schools when the land is available, not after all the houses are built.

The same holds true for local governments. They have future needs. Sometimes the need is a future office building. Sometimes it's for a wastewater treatment plant. Usually, though, it's to set aside land as a future recreational site such as a park or natural area.

At its core, the purchase of the Spokane Raceway Park site is a real estate transaction. The question should be whether Spokane County has a legitimate future need for the site, and whether a reasonable price was paid.

While the purchase has turned into a debate over racing, the site comprises a significant amount of property that is undeveloped. It is one of the largest undeveloped sites within the "Urban Growth Area" (UGA), meaning it has water and sewer service available to it. Spokane County also owns 256 adjacent acres that it utilizes for its off-road vehicle (ORV) park.

Large parcels of land within the UGA rarely go on the market. Typically when they do, it's because the owner has died or the owner is going through financial difficulties. When that happens, decisions to purchase need to be made quickly. Potential buyers look at these circumstances as "unforeseen opportunities" that require them to re-prioritize what they're doing, knowing that the property may not be on the market again.

Did Spokane County have a legitimate purpose for the property when it came on the market?

For years, the County had been looking for a 50- or 60-acre site on the West Plains for a sports complex large enough to host soccer, baseball and softball tournaments. It's a dramatically underserved area for sports fields and the only fallback is the polo field where hoof marks in the turf could turn the ankles of your average 7-year-old.

The Raceway Park site has a gravel quarry, and there are still more than 1,600 miles of unpaved roads in the county that need gravel. The site was originally ranked "second" as a potential site for a new jail. It could be home to a West Plains aquatics center. It could house the Sheriff's Regional Law Enforcement Training Center when their current site at Spokane Community College is demolished next year. This site would even have a place for them to do driver training. And, yes, it does have racetracks -- a drag track, oval track and road course that bring tourists into this community.

Instead of purchasing the entire 573 acres, the County purchased 316 acres. So far, the focus is on creating a tournament-capable sports complex, a regional Law Enforcement Training Facility and owning (but not operating) the racing complex as a tourist draw.

The next question is whether a fair price was paid on behalf of taxpayers.

If the County had pursued a 50- or 60-acre site for a sports complex with water and sewer available, it was estimated to cost $5 million.

Spokane County paid $4.2 million for 316 acres. That amounts to about $14,000 per acre, or 32 cents per square foot. It would be like buying an average residential lot in Spokane for $2,500. In contrast, the City of Spokane paid $100,000 per acre for the Playfair site.

So the County paid $4.2 million instead of $5 million. Instead of getting 50 to 60 acres, it got 316. It's like the "Magic Bullet" TV commercial where you get a discounted price and they include "bonus" features.

The point is this: Even if you shut down all activities at the site and simply set aside the property for a future sports complex, you came out ahead on the purchase price and saved taxpayers money.

Finally, some people have raised concerns over contamination on the site. Of three wells, one shows low levels of solvent contamination consistent with many wells on the West Plains. The seller set aside $1 million for remediation and testified in court proceedings that he would augment that amount from sale proceeds if necessary.

Republican Todd Mielke is a Spokane County Commissioner. He is running for re-election this fall.

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