Warm Springs auto racetrack gets new consideration

Video: The Sonoma Raceway is similar in style to the proposed Warm Springs racing facility

By Jasmine Rockow / The Bulletin


Published Jul 28, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated Jul 28, 2014 at 06:14AM

Efforts are underway to renew interest in a stalled proposal to build an auto racing complex on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation near Madras.

If the project is approved by members of the Confederated Tribes, 900 acres of reservation property would be converted into a motor sports complex designed to attract year-round racing events and support a variety of businesses. The complex would feature a large oval racetrack, a drag strip and grandstands, plus amenities such as an RV park, hotels and retail shops.

The proposal is part of a broader effort by Warm Springs Ventures, the business arm of the tribes, to diversify the reservation’s economy. But to move forward, tribal members must vote in favor of a referendum that allows the Tribal Council to pursue the project and enter into a lease agreement with Lions Head Development, a company out of Boring .

One-third of eligible tribal members must vote in the election — and a majority must approve — for the referendum to pass. There have been three racetrack referendum votes to date, and none has met that requirement.

The first turnout fell 63 votes short and the second, 47. A majority of voters approved the project by a slim margin in the first two votes, but Warm Springs Ventures and the Tribal Council were unable to take the next steps in pursuing a deal with Lions Head because of the low turnout. When tribal members were called to the polls for the third time, on July 2, the referendum failed on both fronts. The count fell short by more than 200 people, and a slight majority of voters disapproved.

“I think there was a little referendum fatigue (in the last vote),” Jeff Anspach, chief financial officer of Warm Springs Ventures, said last week. “We haven’t had a material change in the information presented (to voters) from the first two referendums.”

Anspach, Lions Head and the Tribal Racing Committee are working on ways to inform voters and encourage them to go to the polls.

Olney “J.P.” Patt Jr. is a former chairman of the tribes and a current member of the racing committee. He says that getting more information to voters is crucial. Along with that, he suggests tribal members should support the racetrack because the reservation’s economy is too dependent on natural resources, and Central Oregon doesn’t have a population large enough to support the tourist attractions already in place. This racetrack has the potential to attract the Indy Racing League, the National Hot Rod Association and drag racing all in one complex, Patt said.

Anspach says Warm Springs has always struggled to become geographically relevant to business, but for a racing facility hosting thousands of people, being rural is an asset. Lions Head is drawn to the region’s beauty.

“You can watch seven different races on TV, and they all look the same,” said Brian Keefer, consultant and master planner for Lions Head Development. “But imagine the draw you could create because of the setting. This could be a showcase — this is the Northwest. This is Indian country.”

To convince tribal members skeptical of the project’s viability, Lions Head has incorporated a number of incentives and protective measures. For now the company is promising to write a “Tribal Member First” policy into the joint venture contract. Such a policy would implement environmental protections, prioritize trade and training programs that ensure tribal employment and promote the Confederated Tribes’ culture with an education center and culturally relevant architecture, according to the proposal.

But nothing goes forward until the referendum passes.

There’s a lot at stake with the Warm Springs racetrack. It’s a major infrastructure project on tribal lands. The sponsors of the project claim it will be a boon for all parties, but unanswered questions linger.

“Voters want to be sure they aren’t rubber-stamping something the Tribal Council has already approved,” Patt said. “A lot of people feel it wasn’t fleshed out enough.” Patt says now is the time to give voters a plan that addresses their concerns with specific details.

Dennis Huth and John Erickson could give the plan the legitimacy it needs, according to Anspach, Patt and Keefer. Huth is president of the American Speed Association and a former vice president of NASCAR. Erickson managed Penske Racing South from 1998 to 2005. Both men are working with Lions Head, and because of their involvement, the development company aims to bring 19 major events to Warm Springs every year.

“You cannot build these facilities and hope that industry will come,” said Anspach. “You have to have partners that are embedded in racing. That’s why we are looking to those guys to fill that piece of the puzzle. We could never do it on our own.”

The project hangs in limbo while tribal leadership and the developers try to gain interest. If the Tribal Council is convinced it’s worth trying another referendum, it may go to a vote in a couple of months.

— Reporter: 541-383-0358, jrockow@bendbulletin.com