Noise, traffic and water pollution are top concerns as neighbors of a proposed NASCAR track meet.
Two months after a large crowd sat in subdued near-silence as the details of a proposed NASCAR-style speedway in southern Scott County were unveiled at a local elementary school, opposition is beginning to gel.
A website is up. Petitions are being gathered. And about 100 people got together in a township hall last weekend to hear a retired corporate executive who fought a similar proposal in the north metro say of the developer:
"I don't think he has the financial structure to support this. He has gone from town to town to town to town. Don't you people be the saps who end up with something half-built," said Jim Stahlman, a former TCF Bank executive who fought the developer's proposal in Big Lake.
Elements of a deal are already in motion: A landowner has petitioned to have his land in New Market Township annexed into the city of Elko New Market so that water and sewer can be provided.
But opponents of the Minnesota Speedway Park are being assured that it's still a long, slow slog before any shovels hit the ground; environmental reviews alone are said to take the better part of a year.
A Blaine-based firm known as International Motorsports Entertainment and Development is proposing a 65,000-seat oval track, a 35,000-seat drag-racing track, a hotel and convention center and other accoutrements on a parcel near the intersection of Interstate 35W and County Road 2.
El Tinklenberg, a consultant to the firm, appeared before a large audience of public officials and residents late last year to promise enhanced tax base, jobs and ancillary commercial development on a site that's been awaiting development for many years.
The developer behind the idea, James Farnum, has dangled similar plans before several north-metro communities for a number of years, without success.
Saturday's crowd at the New Market Township hall included a smattering of folks who either favor the idea or are keeping an open mind.
Opposition organizer Amy Lewis, leading the meeting, conceded that it will appeal to city officials and local people on a number of grounds. With little commercial development, she noted, taxes in Elko New Market are almost all on the backs of homeowners, and voters are restive.
"This is a very divisive issue that is already polarizing to our city," she told the group, "and in my eyes that's very sad. We need to maintain respect, moving forward, in anything we do. As soon as we become defensive or antagonistic, people will stop listening to us."
Small town setting
With a fairly modest, thoroughly small-town set of municipal facilities and services, including a skeletal police department, Elko New Market does have a much lower tax rate than other rural cities in the county.
People questioned whether the city would need to ramp up its services for the track with little direct gain in return. County officials have suggested that they will look to the developer for infrastructure upgrades, and that can take the form of tax abatements.
Beyond finances, the main concerns seemed to be traffic and noise -- especially from drag racing.
"We all agree we need jobs and revenue," said township resident Becky Larson, "but if this track were on the corner of my neighborhood, I'd be astounded. ... This will ruin your Saturday evening out on the patio grilling with friends."
Noise, traffic and other potential issues are part of an environmental assessment that's one of the first things to be carried out.
Stahlman, having helped defeat the proposal in Big Lake, made the long drive south to offer lessons from his experience. He said there is encouragement to be drawn from the state's fairly strict noise laws -- although he warned residents to watch out for any local legislator's attempts to help the developer do an end-run around them.
The fact that storm water from vast acres of asphalt can harm the environment is also a trump card, he said, helping defeat the proposal in Big Lake because of its proximity to protected waters of the Mississippi River.
As it happens, opponents in the Elko area are already keenly aware of the site's proximity to a prized trout stream, the Vermillion River.
Friends of the Mississippi River describes the stream as "both a marvelous and a troubled natural resource. Home to high-quality trout fishing and scenic beauty, it's also feeling the effects of human development. Pollution from failing septic systems, storm water runoff and agricultural pesticides and fertilizers are contributing to its impairment."
NASCAR offers no promises
The developer has talked of ties with important national sanctioning bodies for auto racing. Stahlman responded with an August 2008 letter to Farnum from a NASCAR attorney.
The letter, sent with copies to local officials in the north metro, cautioned that "you should not assume NASCAR will sanction a race" just because a track is built in Minnesota. In boldface type he warned against "any expectation or reliance" on NASCAR.
Stahlman was surprised to see how sophisticated is the "oppo research" already gathered by Scott County opponents: Things like full-color printouts mapping local governments' comprehensive plans and satellite imagery from other recent NASCAR installations exploring whether the promised ancillary development ever transpired.
Indeed, when Lewis, a marketing consultant, asked for donations, she noted that she already has exhausted multiple cartridges of toner at a time when the battle has barely begun.
David Peterson • 952-746-3285