Editorial: Catch a ride with NASCAR

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 20, 2006

When Commissioner Jim Sides voiced some vexation at the idea of taxpayers providing incentives for one of the world’s most successful automakers to locate a racing operation in Rowan, he tapped a concern shared by others. Toyota is a global titan in the automotive industry, a company that posted about $13 billion in profits last year and is on pace to supplant struggling GM as the world’s largest automaker.

Providing incentives to Toyota would seem the economic equivalent of offering elevator shoes to the Jolly Green Giant. Expect some lively debate at a Jan. 16 public hearing on the proposal to give Toyota Racing Development a tax break worth more than $500,000 over five years if the company chooses the 89-acre Cline site for a facility that will make components for the NASCAR racers Toyota plans to field next year. In a pay-to-play world, however, the reality is that Rowan has to offer incentives to compete for new businesses. The TRD proposal is a prime opportunity for Rowan to catch a strong draft into the high-powered world of NASCAR.

To this point, it’s a world that has revved up neighboring counties, while making few inroads in Rowan. A few miles up N.C. 150 in Iredell, Mooresville lays claim to being “Race City, U.S.A,” with dozens of NASCAR teams, related businesses and the NASCAR Technical Institute. Cabarrus County has Lowe’s Motor Speedway and its share of racing conglomerates, including the Dale Earnhardt empire. For the state as a whole, a recent study by two UNC-Charlotte economists estimated that the motorsports industry pumps about $5.9 billion a year into the economy, the bulk of it flowing through the Charlotte region. Too little of it, however, has made its way into Rowan.

Initially, Toyota Racing Development’s proposal for a $22 million facility here looks like a modest infusion, generating about 40 jobs in the first phase. But what’s important is the expansion that could lie down the road. TRD clearly has other phases of development in mind, and if the experience of Mooresville, Concord and other racing centers holds true, TRD’s presence could be a catalyst for other growth. With the NASCAR Hall of Fame set to open in Charlotte in about three years, TRD’s arrival would be especially timely as the hall draws new attention to the region’s motorsports roots.

If this deal goes through, it will be a considerable accomplishment for the county’s Economic Development Commission and others who saw the potential in the Cline property, worked to get state certification for it and seized the opportunity to market it for a motorsports use. Like Toyota itself, NASCAR is in a high-growth phase that has seen its popularity spread across the country. Toyota’s participation in NASCAR’s premier racing series will no doubt accelerate that popularity around the world, leading to more racing venues and interest from other automotive manufacturers. If incentives are necessary, knowing there’s a substantial payoff in new jobs and eventual tax revenue certainly makes them more palatable. While there are no guarantees, Toyota is a proven commodity, and Rowan has a chance to reap future dividends if it can catch a ride on NASCAR’s growth.

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