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As Fort Erie worries about the future of its 116-year-old horse-racing track, construction kicked off this month on the massive new Canadian Motor Speedway racetrack that could bring major international races to more than 65,000 fans just four miles from downtown Buffalo.

Heavy excavation equipment and about a dozen workers are at work on the 820-acre site, relocating and enhancing Miller Creek in the first phase of the project. The site is on the west side of the Queen Elizabeth Highway, between Bowen and Gilmore roads.

Construction of the grandstands, the oval track and the road course will follow, with a formal ground breaking scheduled for late spring. Toronto-based Aecon Construction, one of Canada’s largest contracting firms and a specialist in transportation infrastructure, has been hired as the construction manager, with Paxton Waters Architecture as designer.

The entire $389 million project, funded largely by Middle Eastern investors from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, is expected to take 18 months to complete, with an opening targeted by 2016. The total property is equal to 620 football fields.

“We are making history in Canada and North America for the motorsport fan with this track,” said Canadian Motor Speedway CEO Ibrahim Abou Taleb. “It has been a very, very long journey, but now we have a wonderful journey ahead of us.”

The project has faced opposition from residents concerned about pollution and noise. It also does not have any guaranteed NASCAR or IndyCar racing events, but that is not unusual in the industry. Tracks are often built first, with race commitments coming later.

More than just cars

Officials are hoping that the new project – which will include a hotel, restaurants and retail space, as well as a research and development piece for McMaster University – will jump-start the struggling Fort Erie economy.

The town is facing the loss of its biggest tourism attraction in the nearby Fort Erie Racetrack, which is also the largest employer in the town and generates nearly $27 million in annual economic impact. The picturesque and historic thoroughbred racing facility, located less than two miles from the Peace Bridge, is facing major questions about its future, after losing its slot machines in 2012 and its government subsidy a week ago.

But the new speedway – just two minutes from the international border and 20 minutes from Niagara Falls – could be an even bigger economic engine, with the company projecting $450 million in annual economic impact for Fort Erie and up to $1 billion in global media and promotional exposure for Ontario. On a race day, at full capacity, the crowd at the new complex would resemble a Buffalo Bills game, more than doubling the population of Fort Erie.

“When you have this kind of development, that’s going to have national and international coverage if we’re lucky to get a race of any significance, it’ll highlight not just Canada but the United States as well, because the region is a binational economy,” said Fort Erie Mayor Douglas Martin. “It’ll have a great impact on both of the border. It’s going to be very positive for the town, and Niagara, and Western New York, when you have a facility like this so close to the border that it will attract people from both sides.”

Busy oval

Officials project as many as six major racing events in a season, on weekend afternoons, with the facility used between events for nonprofessional club racing and testing without spectators. But even when the track itself is not being used, promoters say the larger operation will still benefit from the restaurant, retail, hotel, research and industrial space, as well as non-racing events such as rock concerts.

“For the Town of Fort Erie, this is a new era,” Taleb said. “CMS is the hub, but around it you have hospitality, retail, research and development that is like a city in itself. CMS will be an attraction that will bring tremendous value to the Town of Fort Erie and the Province of Ontario.”

Its nearest competition for big-league racing is Watkins Glen International in the Finger Lakes region. Founded in 1948 and now part of Daytona Beach-based International Speedway Corp., the well-established track already hosts several NASCAR races. So officials aren’t worried about new competition.

“When other people build racetracks, it’s probably more good than bad,” said Michael Printup, president of Watkins Glen, and a Hamburg native. “There’s a place in this world for everybody. We know how secure we are with the NASCAR family... We don’t view other racetracks as bad, because of the secure nature of our racing.”

In fact, he said, it will benefit the sport and fans as a whole. “We relish the fact that they are building more facilities like this,” he said. “That’ll be great for the industry as a whole... It still builds the psyche and support around the series.”

The new racing complex – which officials tout as Canada’s first world-class oval and integrated course – has been more than seven years in the making, after officials first conceived of the idea in 2006 and unveiled it to the public in June 2009. It faced a strict regulatory and development process, as well as some local opposition, culminating in a final ruling by the Ontario Municipal Board in June that cleared the way for the work to start.

“As far as the necessary approvals, they’ve cleared pretty much all of those,” Martin said. “They’re all set to go.”

As part of the approval, however, the company has to preserve Miller Creek, extending and rerouting it behind the oval track and grandstands. Workers will then reseed the creek’s banks and plant trees in the spring, and the creek itself will become a fish habitat. Then the track construction work begins in early summer, after the final site plan is approved by the town.

Tough getting NASCAR

Plans call for a three-quarter-mile paved oval racetrack, designed by legendary NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, plus a two-mile paved road course and a separate speedway course for motocross, BMX, snowmobile and rental kart racing. The tracks would have full support facilities in the infield, including truck and recreational vehicle parking, garages, first-aid stations, fueling areas, press facilities, a fan walk, and a maintenance and emergency command center.

The facility would seat 65,000, with clear views of the track, but it would be expandable to 100,000. There are also plans for luxury seating and 80 suites, plus up to 5,000 club seats.

Speedway officials say the new complex will support a mixture of stock-car, open-wheel, sports car, off-road, drifted-circuit, motocross and motorcycle racing, at various levels of competition.

NASCAR officials would not address the chances of the track landing big time races.

“Naturally, we’re aware of the proposed facility in Fort Erie, but don’t speculate on possible events at venues that aren’t yet built,” said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR’s vice president of racing operations. “Our schedules are developed on an annual basis and right now we’re excited about the 2014 schedules, not to mention finishing up a great 2013 season.”

However, attracting the top-line races is expected to be the company’s goal, since those would draw the biggest crowds.

“We have cleared a lot of hurdles along the way,” Gordon said in a press release. “We’ve had to be very patient during the entire process, but I’m excited for Canada, I’m excited for auto racing.”

Printup, of Watkins Glen, cautioned that getting a NASCAR sanction isn’t easy, especially since the privately owned racing body – controlled by the same family that controls International Speedway Corporation – generally isn’t adding more races.

“Racing’s a very difficult business,” he said. “It’s a very difficult thing to obtain any kind of sanctioning. Those are very difficult to attain, because the schedules are set so far in advance.”

Concerts, hockey, research

The racing portion totals $150 million, but that’s only part of the total project. Besides the racing, officials expect the complex to include a concert grandstand and amphitheater that could host concerts, winter events and community programs, as well as an outdoor hockey rink that would meet National Hockey League specifications. On the recreational side, the complex would feature 185 acres for campgrounds, a park, bike paths and walkways.

The complex would also include 75,000 square feet of commercial space, and a 31.1-acre industrial and educational park planned for motorsport suppliers, parts manufacturers and assemblers, as well as a research-and-development area where engineering faculty from McMaster will study renewable fuels, composite materials and powertrains. There are also plans for a driver-training institute and driver experience school.

“We are ecstatic,” said company executive director Azhar Mohammad, a Toronto native who owns 10 percent of the company. “If you look at the efforts that have been expended and the milestones we’ve achieved after so many years with extensive support from the community, this is truly exciting for our entire team and partners in Kuwait and the U.A.E.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com