At various times over the past twenty years, the dream of an international motorsports speedway in Aurora has been brought to a skid by voters, who specifically prevented city spending on a racetrack in 1999.
But a world-class speedway is a step closer to reality after an Aurora judge ruled on Tuesday, July 18, in favor of a recent Aurora City Council charter amendment that, if approved by voters in November, would remove the 1999 ban on speedway subsidization while paving the way for a massive entertainment district in the city's northeast.
The court case is the latest iteration of the long battle between residents, activists and some members of the city council, which voted 7-3 last month to remove the voter-approved barrier between public funding and the development plan and to bring an amendment creating an entertainment district to voters. That move was quickly met with a lawsuit from opponents, who say that the amendment is intentionally misleading and that voters will not be able to understand what a "yes" vote would truly mean for the city.
On Tuesday, District Court Judge John L. Wheeler approved the amendment for the ballot, which ensures that Aurora voters will consider the construction of the racetrack unless the plaintiffs — lawyer Jason Legg and activist Kristin Mallory — are successful.
Legg's biggest concern is that the summary of the amendment, which is what voters would read in November, does not mention the removal of the 1999 ban on public spending for a speedway. Instead, the amendment will "facilitate the development of entertainment venues, including motor sports facilities, that are anticipated to increase tourism and create jobs."
"Creating an entertainment district — that's different from authorizing subsidies for motor sports facilities," says Legg. "The actual amendment doesn't actually say that within this entertainment district, motor sports facilities can get subsidies. What it does say is that the ban on motor sports facility subsidies is gone."
According to Legg, this means that voters could be misled into thinking that the entertainment district may or may not include a racetrack, when the entire area would be developed with a speedway as the centerpiece, and that the track would be limited to the developed area — which is not specified in the summary.
Councilman Charlie Richardson, one of three who voted against the amendment, is also concerned that the amendment is misleading, calling it "purposefully confusing in order to induce a different outcome than the previous votes."
Even worse, says Richardson, was the process of writing and voting on the proposed amendment. To remove the city's restriction on subsidizing a racetrack, city council members first had to work through and vote on a draft of the proposal, which Aurora voters would then consider in November with other ballot initiatives. But Richardson says that the amendment never went to committee, where much of the hard work of hammering out laws takes place, and that he only saw the amendment one business day before the vote took place.
Richardson, who was the Aurora City Attorney for 28 years, says that he has never seen anything like it. “This was a sham," he says, adding that he might have considered the racetrack idea if it had received the proper amount of consideration and debate. "I would have been open to considering the removal of those anti-subsidy provisions, but not the way this was done. This was corrupt. It's just wrong."
Councilwoman Sally Mounier, who spearheaded both the 2015 and 2017 attempts to amend Aurora's city charter, says the process was legal and fair game. She blames Richardson's disagreement on personal issues.
"Charlie is a bully," she says. "There are people that don’t want to see Aurora succeed in anything."
Mounier dismisses the accusations that the amendment is misleading, and says that she worked with the Aurora Economic Council and the Mayor's Office to fine-tune the amendment specifically to address voters' concerns, like the cost and potential noise of the enormous development plan, which led to the defeat of a racetrack plan in 2015.
"I think we’ve got it, and we’ve got the language that will answer all of those questions," she says.
Mounier believes that the narrow margin of the 2015 defeat, which was decided by about 1,000 votes, indicates that Aurorans are closer to accepting the right proposal.
"We need to try this again if we can…because the vote was so close," says Mounier. "It was significant enough for me to think if we answered [voters' questions] that we would prevail.
"I can’t imagine this not succeeding," she adds. "I can’t imagine it. It is not possible."
Mounier's model for Aurora is the Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile NASCAR track surrounded by malls, outlet stores, restaurants, hotels and bars. The plan, she says, is to reap the benefits of tourism and new jobs in order to invest in Aurora.
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But Kristin Mallory, an activist with Aurora Residents for Transparency (ART) and a plaintiff in the lawsuit with Legg, doesn't like seeing Mounier dredge up the old racetrack idea instead of addressing real issues like low-paying jobs and gentrification.
"Something doesn't smell right here," she says. "When you think about Aurora, and you think about our diverse population and our need for high-paying jobs and affordable housing, and you go to City Council and see the political willpower being spent on a racetrack, it is eye-opening."
Mallory is not sure whether she and Legg can afford an appeal, which is the last barrier they could place in front of the racetrack. But she's glad that the lawsuit brought attention to the city's plan — and she hasn't given up.
"Even though we lost, it's a game-changer for city council," she says. "Because now we're paying attention."