The city of Concord, trying to settle a fight in which owner Bruton Smith threatened to move Lowe's Motor Speedway, reversed its opposition Tuesday to the billionaire's building a drag strip on speedway land.
After the surprise move, city leaders cautioned that no deal is in place with Smith.
Through a spokesman, Smith called the move "a small step" toward resolving the issue. He had said he would move his speedway out of Concord if the city continued to block his efforts to build the $60 million drag strip.
Smith was a guest on "Tony Stewart Live" on Sirius NASCAR Radio Tuesday night. He told the hosts, "So now they've decided maybe they do want it.
"One day we will look back at this, I hope, and we'll all laugh about it," Smith said. "But in the meantime, when I get home I will take a look and read exactly what they've done and try to diagnose the whole thing."
Specifically, council members voted Tuesday to ask the Planning and Zoning Commission to consider amending the speedway's zoning to allow drag strips on the property -- a use that the City Council unanimously banned just last week.
John Cox, head of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, called the city's vote a significant turning point.
"Every indication I have from (Smith's company) is this is the action they wanted" from the council, Cox said.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ramseur said he didn't know whether the council's decision would guarantee the speedway will stay.
"Only one person can make that decision," Ramseur said. "I hope (Smith) knows we are trying to work out something in the best interest of the speedway, the city and the surrounding areas."
Since last week, council members have learned more about sound buffering at drag strips Smith owns or has built at his other speedways, Ramseur said.
Concord Mayor Scott Padgett, when asked about Tuesday's vote, said, "We were trying to look at the long-range good of the city of Concord. We expect that, during the plan review process that the Planning and Zoning Commission will go through, the speedway will have to address the issues that concern us."
Concord city staffers also have learned that Smith doesn't have plans for a drag strip already prepared to submit to the city. That means both sides have more time to negotiate over exactly how Smith will build the drag strip, Ramseur said.
"We have some new information now, and we're ready to move forward," Ramseur said. "We are trying to do what we talked about last week: Come up with some resolution that will meet the needs of everybody."
The council also recommended that, if the zoning board approves the change at its meeting next Tuesday, the speedway should work with the city "to consider the (drag strip's) impact on the surrounding area."
The council set a public hearing on the recommended zoning amendment for Oct. 24.
City Council changed zoning
On Oct. 1, the City Council voted to halt construction of the drag racing facility, citing concerns about noise in nearby neighborhoods and the speedway's failure to provide data on the noise issue."I was shocked when they decided they wanted to change the zoning on us," Smith said on the radio show. "I think they have bad legal advice, because I have found out from about a dozen attorneys that was illegal, what they did."
Smith had said, after the council's Oct. 1 vote, that he was willing to spend $350 million to abandon his track in Concord and rebuild it somewhere else. Smith also threatened legal action and brought on well-known Charlotte lawyer Bill Diehl.
The fight came just as people began pouring into the area for Saturday's Bank of America 500 NASCAR race.
When the Observer asked Cabarrus business and tourism officials whether they thought Smith's threat was real, they said they had no choice but to assume it was.
DeSales Wagster, chief executive officer of the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau, called Tuesday's council vote "an act of good faith by the city."
There's plenty of money at stake for Concord and Cabarrus County, an area still grappling with major job losses and factory closings.
The track generated $169 million in tourism spending for Cabarrus last year, nearly 70 percent of the tourism revenue that came into the county, according to the Cabarrus chamber. And speedway property taxes are worth about $1.02 million to the county this year and an additional $722,247 to Concord.
Neighbors worried about noise
But neighbors in nearby subdivisions worried about noise, not dollar signs.
Andy Ritchie, who lives in the neighborhood closest to the site of the proposed drag strip, said he does not know what to make of Tuesday's decision. But he believes residents aren't getting enough information.
"We all expected them to change their minds," said Vince Barone, who lives near the proposed drag strip site.
Barone said he hoped Smith would spend some of the money he would have used to move Lowe's to create an adequate sound barrier.
"Let's lead by example and make it really nice," Barone said.