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Ingram: Austin’s Decision – Status Quo Or F1

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 25 2011

Austin, Texas has a decision to make. Move forward with Formula 1 or opt for the status quo. (Photo courtesy of the Circuit of the Americas)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

In a city named after a statesman and with a newspaper using the same generic noun, there’s not much statesmanship going on in Austin when it comes to the future of the Formula One race scheduled for June of 2012. Watching the sausage being made while democracy collides with F1’s current era of wooing governments as a way to raise revenue, I remain reasonably optimistic about a race next year at the Circuit of the Americas.

There is the usual mainstream cultural bias against motor racing at work in Austin, a town well known for Those Who Would Take Exception to begin with. The local populace often alternates between outrageous liberal activism, classical laissez-faire liberalism and old-fashioned conservatism of the “not in my backyard” stripe.

But I suspect when all is palavered and done, and following a fair fight full of good ol’ American mud-slinging via the newspaper comments, among other locations, the city council will endorse the plan to invest $25 million annually of state money in the F1 race for the next 10 years.

I could be wrong. And, on the subject of F1 I have been wrong. About the last thing I got really correct was predicting a crowd of more than 200,000 at Indy for the first F1 event at the hallowed Brickyard way back when. Please, let’s not talk about US F1.

For the real racers in the U.S., the failures at Indy and Charlotte when it comes to F1 may continue to loom large. It, F1, can’t seem to happen here. Certainly, Austin is the

Tavo Hellmund's friendship with Bernie Ecclestone, the president and CEO of Formula One Management, dates back a long way. (Photo courtesy of Formula One United States)

final acid test, given that a capable promoter, Tavo Hellmund, plus well-financed and capable partners like Red McCombs and Bobby Epstein, are fighting hard to bring the circus to town. If these gentlemen, along with the support of Austin’s mayor and the state’s comptroller, who is offering the $25 million per year, can’t make it happen, then, well… it doesn’t look good.

My perspective is from the neighborhood in Atlanta now known as the West Side. As the owner of three properties in this in-town area where I live, I’ve got some skin in this game. At present, you can’t find anybody in the city of Atlanta who doesn’t acknowledge the West Side is a happening place, a booming, charming cultural mecca of mixed use and mixed incomes with a multi-racial, multi-ethnic populace and a very positive future.

None of this would have happened without the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, many of which took place adjacent to the old run-down neighborhood west of downtown that didn’t even have a name. The presence of the Games at Georgia Tech, the World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome brought focus and attention to the in-town possibilities. Afterward, the push brought on by the Games opened up new possibilities in what became known as the West Side. Suddenly, it was adjacent to new highly developed areas like the Centennial Olympic Park, the new Georgia Acquarium, etc.

They may not have been sufficient, but the Games were necessary for the revival of this 25 square mile area – a gigantic patch in terms of the over-all size of the city. On a broader, less self-interested scale, Atlanta finally lived up to its handle of an international city and it continues to reap the benefits from infrastructure established for the games, including Turner Field, home of the Braves.

In Travis County, adjacent to the city of Austin and its international airport, the Circuit of the Americas is dedicated to transforming what was mostly scrubby brushland, truck depots and dumps of various kinds. But when you start talking millions and foreigners like F1’s impressario Bernie Ecclestone being on the receiving end, folks quickly lose sight of a blight than can be transformed, construction jobs and a potential high-tech future.

Money worries recently postponed the vote of the Austin City Council needed to OK the contract between the city and the promoters. That contract is necessary to get the $25 million from the state – which will end up in Ecclestone’s hands.

One can only hope sanity prevails and the folks on the council will recognize along with other city leaders that Austin will move up several notches on the world recognition scale as a result of F1 coming to town. The University of Texas alone will reap tremendous recognition for its research facilities, including those dedicated to renewable sources of energy.

As for that mesquite-covered portion of the Travis County where the Circuit of the Americas is now being built, it stands to gain a new lease on life – at the risk and expense of the track promoters.

I do take exception – along with many expert economists and everyday American residents – to the wildly optimistic models about how a $25 million annual investment will produce a concomitant amount of tax benefits. But it’s the same baloney they’ve been selling for almost a decade to support the Super Bowl in Dallas, the Final Four and other sporting events in the state of Texas.

What’s different? This is motor racing. As such, it brings far more potential investment due to spinoffs than any stick-and-ball sport. And it’s F1, which can bring the world to the doorstep of Austin annually. At a price and hassle far below the cost of the Olympic Games.

As a former resident of Austin, I believe the city and its leaders will step up to the challenge of negotiating who pays for what under the contract to host F1, which has become the focus of the bickering and political bluster. This is the way it should work in a democracy, because those bills for firemen, policemen and traffic coordinators needed to make the race happen add up quickly. Also, who will pay for the necessary widening of roads near the Circuit of Americas? That’s an issue that should be decided in a public forum.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of whether Austin wants to remain a semi-sleepy medium size city, a cultural by-way that hosts the horse-trading down by the river at the state capitol, music on Sixth St. and a music festival or two, plus the Longhorn football games. Or, if the city wants to step up to a future with F1 that will more than repay the state’s investment while taking Austin and Travis County toward something that latter-day versions of Waylon and Willy would have to come up with some new lyrics for.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 25 2011
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