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Fast Track to Scandal City?



Upstate lawmakers don't need a lot of reasons to vote against New Orleans, even if the city's interests coincide with their own. The battle over the Saints, the Hornets and the convention center in the current special legislative session is a case in point.

New Orleans lawmakers, however, are making things worse by fighting amongst themselves over a half-baked proposal to build a motor speedway in eastern New Orleans.

The local delegation was supposed to unite behind the Saints, the Hornets and Phase IV of the Morial Convention Center, which are tough enough to sell under the best of circumstances.

Now that some eastern New Orleans legislators are holding out for the controversial speedway, the whole package is threatened.

That's too bad, because the Saints, the Hornets and Phase IV would all be good for the entire state. More important, they're sure bets. We can measure the Saints' economic impact because they've been here for 36 years. The value of an NBA team likewise is certain; the Hornets already have season ticket sales to back up the team's promised economic impact.

And the convention center is simply the single biggest economic engine in the state, hands down.

The same cannot be said of a speedway in eastern New Orleans.

Let's start with the obvious: its primary proponents are politicians and their pals. That ought to be big red flag that the speedway will be little more than a fast track to scandal city.

But let's look closer. I spoke to some folks who know a thing or two about auto racing (I admit I know next to nothing).

The first thing I learned is that south Louisiana already has a fine speedway -- although it's not the same kind that's proposed for eastern New Orleans. No Problem Raceway Park sits about 75 minutes from town, about 10 miles south of Donaldsonville. It includes a drag strip and a 1.8-mile curved racecourse (the kind used by Formula 1 or Grand Prix racers).

No Problem's owner, Pat Joffrion, built the tracks himself, with private money, on land that he already owned. He's been open less than a year, but already he's booked solid.

Now, you might think Joffrion's experience augurs well for a bigger, classier track in eastern New Orleans, but think again. Joffrion explains why:

"They don't have any contracts," he says. "You don't build a $50 million facility unless you have NASCAR contracts. It's not one of those things where, if you build it they will come. You have to have guarantees that NASCAR will sponsor races there, or else there's no way to support your debt reduction."

Several racing drivers I know echo Joffrion's suspicion that it's highly unlikely NASCAR will sponsor races at a new speedway in eastern New Orleans. There simply aren't any dates available. It would be folly, Joffrion says, to suggest that some other NASCAR track, which is already a success, would give up a good racing date so that the new, unproven track in New Orleans can give it a go.

Joffrion has an alternative plan: spend less money and finish four-laning the state highways leading from New Orleans to his track. That sounds a tad self-serving, but hey, Joffrion at least has done the heavy lifting.

Moreover, it would give rural lawmakers a slice of the economic development pie without taking something away from proven winners in New Orleans.

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