Race park puts Atwater plans in neutral

MERCED -- Riverside Motorsports Park officials have instructed Merced County to cease all permit work related to their proposal to build a massive motorsports complex near Atwater.

RMP also has asked the county to return money it handed over earlier this year after county officials said they wouldn't do more work on the company's behalf unless it paid up front.

Although RMP officials insist that they are not walking away from the quarter-billion-dollar project, their request, made this week, doesn't bode well for the proposal's future.

"Although we are terminating this contract, it should not be construed that we are abandoning the project at this time," RMP's vice president, Mark Melville, said in a letter delivered to the county this week and obtained by the Sun-Star on Thursday. "You should know, however, that we continue to look at alternatives to lessen the project size while not compromising the economic (benefits) to the county."

Proposed more than five years ago, the RMP project is far from breaking ground. The racing complex originally involved 1,200 acres of farmland near Castle Airport.

Earlier this month, motorsports park Chief Executive Officer John Condren issued a statement saying the company is considering scaling back its plans from an eight-track motorsports park to a four-track park about two-thirds the size of RMP's initial proposal.

Under the revised plan, the park would include an oval speedway, a road course, a drag strip and a go-kart course, Condren said in the statement.

RMP officials haven't ceased all work on the park. According to Condren's statement, they are attempting to find investors and banks to fund the project.

Must start over

But, according to the letter RMP sent the county this week, the company has stopped working to secure the county permits and approvals it needs to break ground.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors approved RMP's proposal in December 2006 after heated public debate over whether the project should be built. But a judge threw out those approvals earlier this year when she ruled against RMP in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups and the Merced County Farm Bureau.

To regain those approvals, RMP must give the county more detailed plans for its project. RMP then must conduct new studies on how its proposal would affect the environment and allow the public time to review the studies.

The Board of Supervisors then would have to vote in RMP's favor again.

All of that requires the time and effort of the county's planning department and legal counsel -- and RMP must pay the county for those services.

RMP has been on shaky financial footing for months, and it's had difficulty paying its bills. After the company failed for months to make more than $150,000 in delinquent payments to the county, the Board of Supervisors voted to require RMP to pay upfront for permit and legal services.

In February, RMP gave the county $50,000 to place in a trust account from which the county could draw. Now RMP wants back whatever is left in the account.

The county is calculating RMP's outstanding bill to make sure nothing is missed, county spokesman Mark Hendrickson said.