The backers of a proposed $400 million, 65,000-seat motor speedway in Fort Erie, Ont., are going ahead with their plans after a government panel dismissed the remaining legal objections to the racetrack and entertainment complex.
The Ontario Municipal Board this week rejected the appeals filed by opponents of the massive project, which would fill most of an 823-acre site near the Peace Bridge along the Queen Elizabeth Way and raised fears among neighbors of increased noise and traffic.
Officials hope to draw thousands of out-of-town racing fans for extended visits, and they say the long-awaited Canadian Motor Speedway, expected to open in 2014, will boost the economy on both sides of the border.
“This is the kind of project that helps the entire Niagara River Basin,” said Jim Thibert, general manager of the Town of Fort Erie’s Economic Development and Tourism Corp.
The speedway finally got the green light after years of delay, and the project is a much-needed piece of good news for a town still reeling from the loss of the slot machines at Fort Erie Race Track and facing the potential closing of that venerable horse racing venue.
Speedway promoters hope to bring top-level auto racing and other events to the new racetrack, which will be built to NASCAR specifications even though NASCAR officials haven’t committed to Fort Erie.
Since 2005, officials have talked about building a speedway in Fort Erie, initially identifying a 1,000-acre site that includes a golf course.
By 2008, attention had shifted to a parcel near the QEW, between Bowen and Gilmore roads, less than two miles from the Peace Bridge. Fort Erie officials said Bayt Al Mal Investments, an Islamic investment bank based in Kuwait, led the group of speedway investors.
Work on the project stalled, however, as the racetrack’s backers sought the necessary approvals, and opponents challenged the town’s decision to change the zoning on a portion of the site and raised objections about noise and traffic levels.
The Ontario Municipal Board on Monday dismissed those appeals.
The board’s ruling followed a two-week hearing held in June. The decision included provisions agreed to before the hearing by the speedway operators and the Citizens Coalition of Greater Fort Erie.
The investors now are moving forward under the leadership of The International Investor, or TII, a Kuwaiti financial services firm that bought Bayt Al Mal, Thibert said. Another partner in the project is NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, who helped design the track.
The track isn’t yet tied to any racing series, but investors hope that NASCAR will commit to Fort Erie once its officials see the state-of-the-art facility.
“No affiliation – that is up to the developers,” Fort Erie Mayor Douglas Martin said.
The racetrack will include a one-mile banked oval track and a 2½-mile road track. It will have 65,000 seats, but Thibert said the grandstand will be built to allow for expansion to up to 100,000.
The site also will boast 75,000 square feet of retail shops, restaurants and other commercial space; a high-tech automotive research facility; and a course for BMX bikes, snowmobiles and rented go-karts.
The Toronto Star reported that the site could be used for an outdoor National Hockey League game.
“This is a track that’s going to be open for most of the year,” Thibert said.
Racing fans will stay for several days at a time, visiting Niagara Falls and other attractions during their stays, he said.
Martin said ground could be broken on the speedway by the first of the year, with construction taking 18 months to two years to complete, though previous announcements of the opening date for the speedway have come and gone.
News of movement on the speedway comes as Fort Erie fights to keep open its horse racing track, whose history dates from 1897. In April, the Province of Ontario shut down the slot machines at the track, a move that threatens the future of horse racing there.