Aurora Revs Up Its Tourism Engines With An Old Racetrack Idea

Aurora City Councilwoman Sally Mounier is a car person. The 77-year-old came of age in a time when drag racing was the pinnacle of cool and owning a car meant freedom. These days, the grandmother of twelve drives a twenty-year-old Cadillac, which she describes as “a big boat.” But it’s not her dream car.

“If I had my way,” she says, “I’d be driving a 1957 fuel-injected Chevy.”

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Mounier is one of the forces behind a campaign to repeal a section of the city charter that bars Aurora from subsidizing any motorized-sports facility, such as a racetrack. The section, added by voters in 1999, was meant to thwart a proposal by the International Speedway Corporation to build a track near the intersection of E-470 and I-70. That plan was backed by brewing tycoon Pete Coors and some of the owners of the Colorado Rockies, including Charlie and Dick Monfort.

But a group called Concerned Residents Against Speedway Havoc, or CRASH, opposed the plan, warning that a track would mean heavy traffic and noise. A month before the 1999 election, campaign-finance reports revealed that CRASH was funded by the New York-based owner of the Pikes Peak International Raceway in Fountain, which would have faced competition if the Aurora track had been built. City officials were frustrated that outsiders were meddling in local politics, but CRASH’s message resonated with voters: The measure barring subsidies to motor-sports facilities passed with 54 percent of the vote.

The way Mounier sees it, such a specific prohibition doesn’t belong in Aurora’s charter, a document that describes how the city of nearly 350,000 residents should be governed. “Is the city charter a place to discriminate against an industry?” she says. “I don’t think so.”

To get rid of the ban, a majority of voters must agree to repeal it. In November, they’ll have that opportunity. Ballot measure 2J asks voters to restore the city council’s ability to provide “appropriate and reasonable economic incentives” to motor-sports facilities.

“With it on the charter, we were never able to recruit anything like that,” says Wendy Mitchell, president of the Aurora Economic Development Council. “This is the first step.”

Aurora officials hope that allowing for subsidies will pave the way for the construction of a new track, even though there are currently no plans in the works. “Nothing of that size is going to get built without incentives,” Mounier explains. “The entity that will do this will need the assistance of the municipality — maybe even the state.”

At a small “Yes on 2J” kickoff event at Aurora’s city hall last week, local politicians and economic-development boosters emphasized the benefits of a racetrack, including the potential to bring jobs and tourism dollars to the sprawling suburb. For years, Aurora has been trying to position itself as a destination spot — and a racetrack would be a boon.

“Great cities are not born; they’re built,” Mayor Steve Hogan said at the kickoff. “We have an opportunity to continue to build the great city of Aurora.”

Aurora has consistently chased such opportunities. In 2012, the city was awarded an estimated $81.4 million in state sales-tax rebates for the Gaylord Rockies Hotel, a 1,500-room hotel and convention center to be built near Denver International Airport. The controversial project has since undergone a change of developers and has been the suject of several legal challenges, including a lawsuit filed by eleven Denver-area hotels. Despite all of that, the project broke ground last month.

A racetrack might lure developers to build even more tourist attractions in the area to cater to the fans who come to watch the races, city officials say. Maybe an outlet mall. Or a theme park. They pointed to the Kansas Speedway near Kansas City as an example of what’s possible. Opened in 2001, it hosts NASCAR races and spurred the development of a casino next door.

If Aurora had a racetrack and other major attractions, Hogan imagines, it would be “a place where people can go to enjoy themselves — not just for a day, but for a week.” For her part, Mounier would love to see a motor-sports facility that could also host live music and theater performances, as well as large festivals and conventions. “Aurora can’t have a football team,” she says. “We can’t have a baseball team. We can’t have a hockey team. But maybe we could have a motor-sports facility that would be our very own economic driver, a destination for us.”

The Coors- and Monfort-supported attempt to build a track in the late 1990s fizzled. A spokesman for the International Speedway Corporation, which owns several tracks across the country that host big-money NASCAR events, explained at the time that the company had a lot on its plate. “We’ve kind of put Denver on the back burner,’’ he told the Rocky Mountain News in January 2000.

But five years later, the International Speedway Corporation was back in Colorado. This time, it was here to buy the Pikes Peak International Raceway, which had interfered with its previous plan and pushed for the Aurora ban on motor-sports subsidies. Immediately after buying the raceway south of Colorado Springs, the company shuttered it.

The raceway reopened in 2008 after being sold again, this time to a group of private investors interested in offering behind-the-wheel driving experiences to the public and hosting events put on by race-car owner groups. As part of the deal, the new owners had to promise not to hold races that would attract crowds of more than 10,000 people (read: NASCAR).

Around the same time, the International Speedway Corporation announced that it was exploring the Denver market once again. The company was considering a partnership with the National Western Stock Show in which the two would share a facility, hosting the stock show in the winter and NASCAR in the summer. In 2009, two local developers floated dueling plans for racetrack complexes near DIA. Both said they hoped to work with the company, and both were banking on financial help from a new state law known as the Regional Tourism Act. The law rebates a portion of the new sales-tax revenue generated by a statewide tourist attraction to help pay off the cost of building it.

But neither project ended up applying. Instead, the inaugural recipients included the Gaylord Rockies Hotel. In addition to state tax rebates, the project got nearly $400 million in local incentives, including from Aurora. However, the Economic Development Council’s Mitchell says that the 2J ballot question has nothing to do with Gaylord.

At this point, a racetrack in Aurora is still just a wish. “A developer hasn’t come forward and said, ‘I want to build this,’” Mounier emphasizes. “We’re not doing this because somebody is waiting in the wings. We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do.”

Still, she and other officials hope that with the racetrack-subsidy prohibition off the books, developers who want a piece of the lucrative NASCAR empire will once again come out of the woodwork. And if they do, Aurora will be ready. The 2J ballot initiative has been unanimously endorsed by the city council, the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, the Aurora Economic Development Council and Visit Aurora, the city’s five-year-old tourism bureau.

“We’ve got the land,” Mounier says. “We’ve got the water. And we have the willingness.”
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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar