News: Charlotte Exclusives

Race to the Bottom

Public money for a NASCAR museum? An absurd non-qualifier

NASCAR has a $400 million TV deal with two major TV networks as well as other merchandising revenue streams worth millions, and a $750 million, 10-year sponsorship deal with cell phone giant Nextel. Nextel has 17,000 employees, annual sales of almost $11 billion, and a market cap of $33 billion and just announced a $35 billion merger with Sprint on the heels of a record Nextel quarter. Speedway Motorsports — which counts Lowe’s Motor Speedway, as in $35 million in naming rights Lowe’s, among its NASCAR-favored properties — has 750 employees, $404 million in sales and a market cap of $1.6 billion. Speedway CEO Bruton Smith’s annual compensation package is pegged at $1.4 million.

In his role as CEO of Sonic Automotive, the operator of 196 car dealerships across the United States, Smith receives an additional $1.5 million. Additional Speedway and Sonic execs dot the Charlotte area’s most-higly compensated list, pulling in numbers in the high six-figures each year.

The point of all this scorekeeping? To remind local elected officials that the motorsports industry, on various levels, is not exactly hurting for cash. Despite this indisputable fact, public financial support for a so-called NASCAR museum has somehow become a topic for debate. It should not be.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has inexplicably failed to drop the black flag on any notion of adding a NASCAR museum to the already hefty $130 million wish list of arts projects city government will soon have to decide how to support. New tax revenue to pay for the new amenities, in the form of a surcharge on uptown parking, ticket fees, or, most ominously, a special property tax assessment, will have to amount to at least $8 million a year to pay for all the goodies.

Faced with this hefty bill, McCrory has evidently decided to try to double-down and toss yet another project onto the multi-culti wish list with hopes of making the bigger package saleable to a larger cross-section of Charlotte residents. After all, it is conventional wisdom in uptown circles that the 14-point thumping the 2001 uptown arena plan took at the polls was due to the fact that the NBA arena-museum-arts bundle did not include anything for the “NASCAR crowd.” So why not co-opt them and build support for the latest package by including a racin’ adjunct?

The answer can be found in years of such thinking by profligate spenders in Washington who, unburdened by a statutory need to actually balance the books, have parlayed such “Christmas tree” politics into hundreds of billions in red ink. At the federal level such behavior is irresponsible, but at the local level it ascends to catastrophic. Local revenues, revenue bases, and supportable debt all are eminently exhaustible and Charlotte is rapidly reaching that tragic tipping point.

Even making the huge leap to grant that some public support for development may, in rare cases, be justified, each and every development project pondered cannot have an equal claim to the public purse. It is the job of elected leaders to make these tough calls, prune the Christmas trees, and not cobble together a political patch-work of “winners” at some infinite cost to taxpayers.

No rational argument supports using scarce public dollars to support a fabulously wealthy entity like NASCAR. Such museums already exist in the Charlotte area, for one simple fact. And if past public financing for an NBA arena is thought to somehow argue for tax dollars for a NASCAR museum, that premise is mistaken. Two wrongs do not a make a right. Charlotte should learn from the painful experience of routing scarce tax dollars to a multi-billion dollar entertainment operation, not repeat the ordeal. And if other cities stand ready to “steal” the NASCAR museum with lavish public subsidies, the correct response is to have a goodbye party when Daytona or Atlanta gets stuck with the bill, not to try to outbid the suckers.

Local leaders, elected and otherwise, now face a simple but profound question exemplified by the NASCAR museum flirtation. Do they want Charlotte to continue to be a great place to live or do they dream of making Charlotte a great place to visit, no matter the cost? Charlotte taxpayers would like to know so they can plan accordingly.