State, BMS unveil walkway plan

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Walking along Volunteer Parkway to get to the Bristol Motor Speedway can often cause as many close calls as action on the race track.
  In hopes of bettering fan safety on race weekends, Gov. Phil Bredesen and BMS owner Bruton Smith announced a cooperative $4 million plan using public and private dollars to build pedestrian walkways and improve traffic flow around BMS. The announcement was made at a luncheon held Thursday in the speedway's newly named Bruton Smith Building.
  "This is about safety for the fans to come here," Bredesen said after unveiling the plan to dozens of luncheon attendees.
  A Governor's Enhancement Grant will fund a portion of the project in two phases. The first phase calls for construction of 12,400 linear feet of sidewalks running along both sides of Volunteer Parkway. The grant totals $1.9 million with a match of $487,000 contributed by BMS.
  Thousands of Bristol visitors walk to the speedway while traffic volumes along Volunteer Parkway are at their highest levels.
  The second phase adds turn lanes on Volunteer Parkway and White Top Creek Road and modifies Old Thomas Bridge Road near the BMS facility. That portion of the project is estimated to cost $1.4 million.
  Bredesen and BMS President Jeff Byrd also dedicated The Bruton Smith Building, the new fan center building at BMS named in honor of the man who took auto racing to another level in the Tri-Cities. The building features an expanded ticket office and the "Bristol Experience" - an interactive fan center including computer simulated racing games, a theater and an array of Bristol themed racing displays. Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc. bought the Bristol track in 1996.
  "For eight years, Bruton Smith concentrated on the betterment of Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway," said Byrd. "Aside from a few buildings in the infield and the actual concrete racing surface itself, Bruton has entirely rebuilt Bristol Motor Speedway."
  The economic impact of two NASCAR race weekends creates a cultural and an economic event scarcely rivaled in Tennessee or the South. The NASCAR's Busch Series and Nextel Cup Series events draw spectators by the hundreds of thousands and bring millions of dollars to the region every year.
  BMS and Bristol officials expect more than 220,000 race fans to file through BMS this weekend for qualifying, the Busch Series race tonight and the Sharpie 500 on Saturday night. The weekend should generate a direct economic impact of $151 million to the area, according to the Bristol Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.
  "That alone makes it the third highest drawing tourist attraction in the state of Tennessee," said Bredesen.
  The March race weekend of the Food City 500 drew 200,000 people while creating a direct economic impact of $139 million and an indirect impact of $628 million. Bristol Chamber of Commerce President Lisa Meadows said the indirect impact was measured using national standards of dollars exchanged for regional and national entertainment events.
  "We estimate what the rollover is and how often that money will change hands," she said.
  When tacking on the Bristol Dragway Thunder Valley Nationals and smaller events held during the year, BMS officials estimate the speedway will have a total direct economic impact of $440 million and an indirect impact of $1.9 billion to the region when 2004 ends.
  During the state's last legislative session, a few state House members apparently saw an opportunity to cash in on Bristol's popularity to fill the coffers in Nashville. A bill attaching a service tax on race tickets sold at BMS events made it to the floor of the House but did not pass.
  The proposed bill irritated several Northeast Tennessee Republican lawmakers who were spooked that such a move could result in Bristol losing both NASCAR events. Bredesen said he opposed such a tax, particularly one that affected tourists visiting Tennessee.
  "I am not very supportive for taxes of any sort," Bredesen said. "I would be very skeptical of anything, particularly on the backs of tourists who we want to come here and feel welcomed to come."