RACING TO NOVEMBER: Aurora City Council grants first thumbs-up to racetrack ballot measure despite early pushback

This latest push to axe the prohibitive racetrack verbiage marks the fourth time the city has attempted to make such a charter amendment. All of the other measures failed, including the most recent attempt in 2015. That measure lost by 1,081 votes, according to Councilwoman Sally Mounier, who backed the effort.

AURORA | Aurora voters moved one step closer to being able to vote on permitting a potential entertainment hub in the far eastern potion of the city Monday night, after Aurora City Council members signed off on an ordinance calling for a related ballot measure this fall.

Passed on a vote of 7-2, the ordinance and subsequent ballot question aims to strip language from the city’s charter that currently prohibits Aurora officials from offering financial incentives to motor sports developers. But more than just unleashing the option to grant incentives — such as tax breaks — to a potential Nascar-style speedway, the ordinance calls for a massive entertainment district on Aurora’s eastern plains, potentially located about five miles west of Front Range Airport.

Council members Charlie Richardson and Barb Cleland voted against the measure, and Councilwoman Renie Peterson was absent from the June 5 meeting. The measure will still have to pass a final reading at an upcoming council meeting to be officially adopted as local law.

At a study session preceding the formal vote on the measure, Richardson pilloried the proposed ballot question, nitpicking several lines in the potential language.

“This is an overtly, intentionally misleading ballot question,” he said.

Richardson took particular issue with the use of the term “generally” in the ballot language to delineate the geographic borders of a potential development.

As it is currently written, the measure would quarantine a potential entertainment hub to the tract of land north of Interstate 70 and east of Hudson Road, according to proposed language. A development would also be prohibited from breaking ground within a half-mile of any property in a residential zone.

The racetrack measure was discussed at both study session and the regular council meeting Monday night, skipping the committee meeting process. That irked Councilwoman Marsha Berzins, who serves as chairwoman of the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee and said she’s received several questions regarding the racetrack measure since the city made the information public late last week.

“I’m chair of the Planning and Economic Development Policy Committee for the city, it did not come to our committee to discuss,” Berzins said. “I don’t think it was fair to the citizens to have us get it at the last minute and vote on it.

“But that being said, I am in support of the entertainment district. I just don’t like the process that this has gone through, or actually the lack of process that this has gone through.”

Nicole Johnston, a community activist and candidate for the up-for-grabs Ward II city council seat, also intimated the process through which the ballot measure was drafted was surreptitious.

“The racetrack has not been an idea that’s come from the community,” Johnston said during a public comment portion of the regular meeting. “It’s coming from special interests, it’s coming very quickly and I oppose how fast that’s going. If you want to have buy-in from the community, do this the right way. It just doesn’t look good, it doesn’t feel right as a resident for it to go this quickly.”

City Councilwoman Sally Mounier, who’s long championed such an entertainment complex, said the fast-tracked approach was taken to ensure the city has as much time as possible to run a successful campaign. In 2015, the city introduced a similar measure less than two months before Election Day. It was defeated by a narrow margin of just more than 1,000 votes.

“We actually were still working on the language up to maybe 10 days ago or so,” Mounier said. “And we had determined early on that we were going to go June 5, so that we would have a longer period of time to get the word out to the public.”

Mounier said if the racetrack measure fails this time around, she doesn’t believe the city will have the credibility to ask the voters to repeal the prohibitionary language “ever again.”

This latest push to axe the prohibitive racetrack verbiage marks the fourth time the city has attempted to make such a charter amendment. All of the other measures failed, including the most recent attempt in 2015. That measure lost by 1,081 votes, according to Mounier, who backed the effort.

Aurora voters first agreed to prevent the city from offering racetrack incentives in 1999, after citizen groups, namely Concerned Residents Against Speedway Havoc, successfully lobbied for the measure. The raceway ban later became entangled in debate after it was challenged in the courts. City officials have maintained that owners of the Colorado Springs Pikes Peak International Raceway financed the measure in Aurora in an effort to ensure they wouldn’t lose business to a new racetrack.

“The fact that this was put into our charter by outside business owners who didn’t want competition, in my mind, that’s good enough reason to take it out of our charter,” said City Councilman Bob LeGare.

Officials have clarified that they have not been talks with any potential entertainment or racetrack developers regarding a new project. The measure would simply permit the option.

“We’re talking about a district with a small ‘d,’” City Attorney Mike Hyman said. “We’re talking about an area where there are going to be entertainment venues. We’re not talking about a specific form of government, or taxing district or tax increment financing. There’s no deal yet.”

Mounier and others with the city have repeatedly circled the Kansas Speedway as a potential blueprint for a racing facility in Aurora. Baseball stadiums, concert venues and retail shopping centers could also be incorporated into the surrounding area, Mounier has said.

“The sky is the limit,” she said. “You’re only going to be limited by your imagination of what we could do.”