Speedway stays for $80 million

CONCORD, N.C. -- Concord Mayor Scott Padgett's phone rang just before 6 p.m. Wednesday.

On the other end of the line: Lowe's Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith.

"We have an agreement," Smith said.

With that, the speedway will stay in Concord, where Smith's company will receive about $80 million in incentives in return for spending at least $100 million on renovations and upgrades.

Smith's decision caps a seven-week saga involving one of Cabarrus County's biggest taxpayers, its biggest tourist draw and a signature sports venue in the Charlotte region.

Still undisclosed, however, are exactly which incentives Smith will receive, and what he'll spend on track improvements.

Smith declined to give details in a brief interview Wednesday night but said there were many reasons he is staying in Concord. A big one, he said, was the number of appeals by residents, merchants and others -- "many thousands" of people -- to not close the speedway after 47 years in Cabarrus County.

"It's just been amazing," Smith said. "That kind of thing makes you feel a strong obligation."

The deal comes at a high cost to taxpayers. Government officials have argued that many projects in the incentives package benefit Cabarrus County. Yet, those projects didn't emerge until Smith threatened to move the speedway, and the package also includes items -- such as tax breaks -- specific to the speedway and drag strip.

Since early October, the speedway's future has been in jeopardy after Smith threatened to close it and build a track elsewhere in the Charlotte region.

The billionaire's threat was in response to an Oct. 1 vote by the Concord City Council blocking construction of a drag strip on speedway property. City leaders wanted more data on how noise would affect nearby residents, but Smith instead began considering other speedway locations.

As Smith said he was being courted by other communities offering land and tax breaks, Concord leaders began to backtrack. They reversed their drag strip vote and made appeals to keep the track open, including asking the state to name a road after Smith.

City, county and state officials also began working with Smith on incentives for him to renovate and upgrade the speedway. After several days of negotiations, Smith met again with local officials Wednesday, speedway spokesman Scott Cooper said, then told track employees late in the day of "an agreement in principle" to stay in Concord.

"It answers the big question," Cooper said. "We'll get into the meat and potatoes here Monday afternoon."

Smith had set a Thanksgiving deadline to decide on whether to move the speedway and to consider incentives, including:

• Extending the George Liles Parkway to U.S. 29, improving access from Interstate 85.

• Widening U.S. 29 to six lanes north of the speedway.

• Providing structures to decrease noise from the drag strip.

• Giving Smith property- and sales-tax rebates based on the amount of investment on the drag strip and speedway improvements.

The incentives, outlined in an e-mail County Manager John Day sent to commissioners this month, were estimated to cost $70 million to $80 million.

Bob Carruth, chairman of the Cabarrus board of commissioners, said Wednesday night that the total package was about $80 million, with about $60 million split between Concord and Cabarrus County and $20 million from the state.