Get out of the swamp boat business immediately

How did East Wenatchee council members plunge into a self-created swamp miles east of the city and lose $112,000 in two years? Easily. A majority was driven by enthusiastic mayor Steve Lacy, the city’s economic development directives and then urged on by its event director, Dawn Collings and her advisory board, as well as United States Sprint Boat Association officials and fans.

How does the council climb out? Immediately. Despite race fans’ supportive emails and testimony, the city should declare a moratorium on the race and sell its rights to private investors.

The economic development task of the event department is, “To promote and attract awareness, interest and tourism to East Wenatchee through special events which portray the spirit of the community and quality of life East Wenatchee has to offer.”  The most visible events are The Les Schwab Classy Chassis Parade and Car Show and the Wings and Wheels Festival.

They’re virtually no risk with free admission on public property in downtown. Most revenues come from registrants and vendors. When I asked Nick Gerde, East Wenatchee treasurer, whether Classy Chassis and Wings and Wheels were profitable, he said, “Government can’t measure and recognize profit like businesses because its income is tax revenue. Historically the hotel/motel tax covers the bulk of (excess) costs for those events.”

Thunder Swamp is a profit/loss business. Eighty percent of the revenue comes from gate receipts on a private 40-acre lot, out-of-sight north of the airport. There’s no major sponsor. The city bears all costs such as track construction, a $16,000 USSBA license, $7,500 per race lease and $11,322 in advertising. Attendance dwindled every race until only 733 ticket buyers paid on Aug. 14.

Thunder Swamp’s event needs investments to reverse the trend.

The track has a reputation for accidents and disqualifications that slow down the fan racing experience and limit super boat speeds. Dan Morrison, the USSBA vice president who built St. Johns’ and his own Port Angeles track, created and built East Wenatchee’s track to challenge racers like one in New Zealand. “Bring your ‘A’ game,” he told Collings, “or don’t come.”

East Wenatchee’s track needs improvements. Collings said, “After the first race this year we smoothed out the turns, and racers were very complementary.”

But only two super boats registered in August and neither finished. The USSBA reported, “It is still very tight and has more turns than any other track in the USSBA Racing Series.”

Finally, supporters recommend more advertising to promote races throughout the Northwest and Canada to get 8,000 people like Port Angeles did this month. Thunder Swamp needs wider promotion, but the comparison’s unfair. Port Angeles hosted the National USSBA Finals where Morrison became a national champion on his own track.

The council is under pressure. It needs to decide by October whether to improve the track, budget expenses and schedule dates with the USSBA. Lacy and several council members don’t want people to feel they’re walking away from it. Mayoral candidate Dave Bremmer has consistently opposed it. Gerde said, “At the budget committee meeting ideas, we batted around to budget money in 2012 to facilitate the transfer to private parties, but assume no risk.”

It may be possible to commission an agent to sell Thunder Swamp rights for 2012. Otherwise, budgeting money assumes risk without guaranteed revenues. Hotel/motel tax revenues probably won’t fully cover the other 2012 events.

The city should regrettably announce a moratorium on Thunder Swamp for 2012. It’s time to cut taxpayer losses.

The city would hardly be walking away. It partnered with the USSBA, built a racetrack on private property and paid the owner $22,500 to hold three races on it. Investors would have three more months to get organized than the city had.

It’s time the private sector shows commitment. The property owner, the USSBA and supporters have vested interests to acquire ownership, assume risk, earn profits and thank the city for its investment.

The city has paid enough for a reminder it has no business risking taxpayer funds in risky profit-and-loss businesses.

Got a comment on Jim’s column? Shoot us an e-mail at weekly@empire-press.com, or visit his blog at blog.jamessrussell.com.


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