CONCORD, N.C. -- A motorsports mecca in Mount Holly, N.C.
NASCAR races near Rock Hill.
High octane in Huntersville, N.C.
All were possibilities before Bruton Smith decided to keep Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord.
At a news conference Monday, Smith made his strongest statement ever regarding the speedway's future in Cabarrus County.
"We're here forever," he said.
But the billionaire businessman also insisted that he wasn't bluffing with his threat to close the speedway and build a new track elsewhere in the Charlotte region.
"There was no doubt in my mind," Smith said. " The intent was absolutely to move."
To that end, engineers for Smith's company, Speedway Motorsports, had identified about a half-dozen viable sites for a new track, including land in the Mount Holly, Huntersville and Rock Hill areas, said Wes Harris, the company's executive vice president of development.
"We got down to the price of acreage. I rode out there and looked at the topography," Harris said, adding that any of the sites would have worked for a new $350 million speedway. "Oh yeah. In a heartbeat."
$60 million dragstrip
Smith joined Concord and Cabarrus officials Monday at Lowe's Motor Speedway to discuss a deal to keep the speedway in Concord. As part of the agreement, Smith plans to build a $60 million drag strip and spend up to $200 million on speedway renovations and upgrades. In return, the city, county and state of North Carolina will provide about $80 million in incentives -- most through road improvements near the speedway.
While it was long on congratulations and short on details, Monday's news conference alleviated nearly two months of anxiety over the speedway's fate.
Smith first threatened to build a new track elsewhere in the Charlotte region last month, after the Concord City Council initially thwarted his plans to build a $60million drag strip. Council members said they had little information about the project and heard of neighbors' concerns about noise.
But city leaders quickly backpedaled from their opposition in the face of Smith's assertions. "We took it very seriously," John Cox, head of the Cabarrus County Economic Development Corp., said Monday. "This was not a game for us at all."
As city and county officials mobilized, Harris and others evaluated other speedway sites for Smith, who wanted a new track to be within a 20-mile radius of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport -- the same distance as the existing speedway.
A new track would have needed at least 700 acres -- the speedway in Concord has more than 1,300 -- and more than 20 initial possibilities were narrowed to five or six viable sites, Harris said.
Of the finalists, he said, some were in large tracts, while others would have been assembled from smaller parcels. All were near major highways, such as N.C. 16 in Gaston County and Interstate 77 in York County, he said, with land costs ranging from zero -- governments would have bought and donated the property -- to about $90,000 an acre.
Even after Concord and Cabarrus officials worked to appease Smith, he said there was a 90 percent chance he would move the speedway. On Monday, though, he acknowledged that ongoing discussions with the city and county meant that chance "was shrinking every day."
With Smith's decision to stay, city and county leaders expect more investment around the speedway. For instance, a trio of hotel projects all are moving forward following Smith's decision, said DeSales Wagster, head of the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Most of the $80 million in incentives will go toward road construction - widening, extensions and other improvements near the speedway. Yet it remained unclear Monday how officials planned to finance the projects.
Increased investment and additional tax dollars from projects such as new hotels could help pay some costs, officials said. Other options include a 1-cent increase in the hotel/motel room occupancy tax or half-cent sales tax increase.
There also was disagreement or at least confusion on the state's role.
Of the roughly $80 million in incentives, Concord and Cabarrus County will provide $30million each. The state will contribute $20 million, Smith said Monday, citing assurances by Gov. Mike Easley during a nearly hour-long conversation between the two men Wednesday.
Easley spokeswoman Sherri Johnson, however, said no additional financial incentives were offered. The governor told Smith that he would honor existing plans for speedway-area roads already approved by the state Board of Transportation, she said.
Regarding speedway improvements, Smith didn't provide details or a timetable for construction Monday, saying only that his company has been working on a master plan for 11/2 years. Padgett said the plans would help solidify the area as the nation's racing center.
As for the drag strip that started the controversy, Smith didn't hesitate when asked if it would be open in time for a National Hot Rod Association race scheduled for next September in Concord.
His answer: "You bet your sweet patootie it will be."
Concord and Cabarrus County leaders say the road projects in the speedway incentives package will be a boon for the entire area. Projects include-
Morehead Road would be realigned.
Speedway Boulevard would be realigned or widened.
George Liles Parkway would be extended.
The U.S. 29/Rocky River bridge would be replaced.
In addition, Speedway Boulevard -- which connects the speedway to Interstate 85 -- would be renamed Bruton Smith Boulevard.