Could Tri-City Raceway be West Richland’s Carousel of Dreams?

When the city of West Richland bought the former Tri-City Raceway in 2019, it saw a spot to build its new police station and a place to steer commercial development.

But a team of fans, including the raceway’s former operator, see something different.

Instead of tearing out the raceway and what is left of its grandstands and support facilities, a new nonprofit called Friends of Red Mountain Event Center wants to preserve and restore them.

The all-volunteer effort helmed by Greg Walden and Eric Van Winkle aims to lease the track portion of the property from the city and restore it as a high-end event center for private and corporate events and even the occasional car race.

Walden operated the raceway for 25 years and runs a raceway in Hermiston. Van Winkle is a veteran radio and TV executive, business consultant and chairman of the Gesa Carousel of Dreams board in Kennewick.

The Friends group would build on the mostly dormant property’s existing infrastructure, which the city estimates would cost $1 million or more to remove for more traditional development.

The city council reviewed the proposal in October. Backers hope to secure a lease deal by the end of the year.

The city bought the raceway property from the Port of Kennewick in late 2019 for its voter-approved police station. Final plans go to the city council in December and the police station project gets started in January. (See story on Page B3.) It will not encroach on the raceway portion of the site.

Recycling the old raceway could give the Red Mountain plan a leg up on traditional development.

Eric Mendenhall, the city’s economic development director, confirmed there is interest in a warehouse. But there is no certainty anything will come together, even if the city spends the money to clear the site.

On the other hand, he said, Friends of Red Mountain is “at home plate” and ready to go — an economic development win he likened to having a “bird in hand.”

“To me, it’s a long shot that we’re going to get one of those warehouses,” he said.

Friends of Red Mountain wants to lease the 35 acres that include the racetrack as well as existing amenities, including a concession stand and restrooms. The total property is about 92 acres.

The nonprofit recently screened “Days of Thunder” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” during well-attended drive-in movie nights in mid-October.

The one-off events generated a “few thousand dollars,” which is helping it press its vision for an event center.

If approved, the city would set a market rate rent level for the property. Mayor Brent Gerry wants to earmark proceeds for park maintenance, which currently has a $1 million backlog.

The nonprofit will pay the difference between the lease amount and what it spends on capital improvements such as fencing, sound and light systems and rebuilding the concession, restroom and grandstands to the city.

So, if the lease rate works out to $80,000 a year, and Red Mountain spent $50,000 on capital upgrades and repairs, the city would receive $30,000.

Van Winkle is hoping for a five-year lease with an option to renew for five years.

Red Mountain Event Center would preserve the existing track, but motorsports are a small part of the vision of corporate, social and industry events. It would host two to four racing events a year. Noise would be limited but traffic at the entrance on Van Giesen Street could be an issue.

Van Winkle called the public-private partnership that oversees the Gesa Carousel of Dreams in Kennewick a useful model that could guide West Richland’s relationship with Friends of Red Mountain.

The model unites the strength of the city with the ability of nonprofits to carry out philanthropic activities, such as ticket giveaways. Cities are prohibited from making gifts of public funds.

“We did that successfully at the carousel and it is a model for this,” he said.

The carousel is a model in another way too. Like all event centers, the carousel has been deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It shut down in mid-March when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order to slow the spread of the virus.

Parker Hodge, executive director, said it has reopened for limited use in Phase 2 but cannot fully reopen under the Safe Start program until Benton County reaches the end of Phase 4.

The carousel laid off most staff and entered the pandemic with no debt and some cash.

Today, it’s operating on donations and some revenue as well as a line of credit from its namesake sponsor, Gesa Credit Union. It has pitched a reopening plan to the governor’s office but received no response as of late October.

A lingering pandemic will be a death knell for event centers, but Van Winkle said Red Mountain Event Center would not be ready for events until mid-2021 at the earliest.

“We’re long-term thinkers. We are rebuilding. We won’t have events for six months,” he said.

The city paid about $1.8 million for the raceway with a combination of $500,000 in cash when the deal closed and a promissory note for $1.3 million, payable via the city’s portion of Rural County Capital Funds held by Benton County.

The port acquired the land in 2008 but had made no move to develop it beyond developing a master plan because it is focused on its Vista Field redevelopment and Columbia Gardens Urban Wine & Artisan Village projects.

Track the project at redmountaineventcenter.com.

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