The Oak Ridge City Council is interested in a proposed test track and research facility or motorsports park at Horizon Center.
The seven City Council members unanimously expressed interest in the proposed project, which could cost more than $50 million and cover more than 300 acres, during a Monday night meeting. The proposal is still in the early conceptual stage, and Council doesn’t have a specific plan to consider or endorse yet.
There are significant questions about the unusual project, which would be in west Oak Ridge, a few miles northeast of the former K-25 site. They include the questions of whether some potential uses such as a hotel would be allowed by the deed restrictions at the site, whether motorsports would be allowed under the industrial zoning, and whether a recreational vehicle park and outdoor music would be appropriate there.
Oak Ridge City Council member Ellen Smith said there are legal constraints on the property. Certain kinds of uses are allowed, and some, such as homes and hotels, are not, Smith said. She said the U.S. Department of Energy was hoping to foster industrial development on the former federal property.
It’s not clear what position DOE might take on the proposed use, and it’s not clear whether the site would be a test track and research facility for non-spectators, a motorsports park for spectators, or a combination of the two.
Supporters of the project, including those who race cars, enthusiastically endorsed the proposal during a discussion that lasted almost two hours on Monday. They said the Horizon Center property is perfectly contoured for a track, and there is a significant community of race car enthusiasts across the country who can spend thousands of dollars at race tracks. They said the closest nearby tracks are about 250 miles away.
“I have an offer, and the potential economic benefit to the city of Oak Ridge is great,” said Steve Jones, an economic development consultant for the city.
Supporters addressed concerns about potential disturbances to natural areas, a concern raised by Smith. They said most people who attend the events are very respectful, and the site would likely have fencing. They also addressed concerns about potential noise, a concern raised by some Council members and residents. Supporters said car noise is monitored at most events, and noise limits can’t be exceeded. They suggested the cars could be quieter than lawn equipment in their neighborhood and the small jets that might fly in and out of the proposed airport at Heritage Center, the former K-25 site.
The resolution passed by Council expresses interest in the project, which was presented to the city around Christmas. Council essentially gave support to the Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board to continue conducting “due diligence” on the project. Council seemed to generally recognize the potential economic benefits, but some, including Smith and Council member Jim Dodson, seemed to want more information.
“This is a really important opportunity for our town,” Dodson said.
A dozen people provided public comments about the proposal as presented to Council on Monday, and most of them, including some residents who live in west Oak Ridge, supported the project.
“I think it would be a big thing for Oak Ridge to get something like this in,” said a Whippoorwill Drive resident.
Although city officials were generally surprised when they first learned about the proposal, some said they found the project to be exciting or a possible good use of the property.
“It could be a real economic engine for the city,” Oak Ridge City Council member Kelly Callison said.
The property is already zoned for industry, which could allow factories with noises and odors, and the track could bring in “high-end” users, “folks that have some money in their pockets and want to spend it,” Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Rick Chinn said.
The IDB could consider whether to sell the property. It’s not clear how long that might take and whether the IDB might come back to give an update to Council. A Special Projects Committee meeting agenda for the IDB on Thursday includes consideration of whether to authorize IDB Chair David Wilson to negotiate a contract for the sale of property at Horizon Center. That meeting is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. February 13 at the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce.
The track or park development could be on three lots on the back side of Horizon Center: parcels 5, 6, and 7. Those are the three lots that have been the subject of recent discussions about how to bring more power to Horizon Center, possibly through power lines near the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement, a proposal that some, including naturalists and environmentalists, oppose.
The test track or motorsports park project could include about 327 acres total. Council members sought some assurances Monday that the Horizon Center lots would be developed if they are sold to the project, especially if there are other prospects who might also be interested in the land.
H.E. Bittle III of Hardin Valley Land Partners told Oak Ridge officials in a February 2 letter that the planned motorsports park would have a road course “suitable for FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) sanctioned events, such as Formula E, Indy Car, IMSA, NASA, and other sanctioning bodies.”
Besides the race course, the motorsports park would have an amphitheater with a mix of permanent and lawn seating for more than 7,000 people, similar to the Ascend Amphitheater in Nashville, Bittle said.
Other planned amenities, he said, include a karting track, paddock club, club house, restaurants, pro shop, garages, day and overnight lodging, meeting and conference space, a recreational vehicle park, and public facilities that would include walking trails and outdoor meeting spaces.
Bittle said the Oak Ridge motorsports park could take advantage of the expanding automobile manufacturing base and the research being conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee.
He said motorsports enthusiasts are usually affluent.
“These individuals will pay fees to have access to the course and other racing-related amenities, which include garages, hospitality areas, and multiple forms of high-end lodging,” Bittle said. “There will also be weekend track rentals to out-of-town organizations who put on events. These events would draw hundreds of out-of-town drivers and their families for a weekend at the track. Additionally, the development would generate demand for business and corporate outings and retreats, which would support the need for meeting and conference spaces.”
Bittle said the park’s closeness to the proposed Oak Ridge Airport at Heritage Center would be “especially attractive” to customers who are accustomed to using private aircraft to attend motorsports events across the country.
“For racing participants, the ability to land at an airport two minutes from the motorsports park will often be a discriminating factor in the their choice to come to Oak Ridge,” Bittle said. “For Oak Ridge, a substantial increase in the number of relatively affluent visitors will represent a sustained contribution to the city’s tax base.”
The project could be developed in stages, Bittle said.
The City of Oak Ridge has worked to bring industries to former U.S. Department of Energy property like Horizon Center since the 1990s. Horizon Center, which has a few companies or operations that have located there, was transferred from the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee to the IDB in 2010.