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NASCAR hall tab jumps

The city's long-awaited NASCAR Hall of Fame may get more expensive.

The hall's planners, including city staff and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, want an extra $32 million to build better exhibits, increase the building's energy efficiency and pay for unexpected construction costs.

They presented their proposal to City Council on Monday. Approval would bring the total cost of the project to $195 million. The hall will be paid for with a mix of hospitality taxes, loans and money from land sales – not property taxes.

The council is scheduled to vote on the increase Sept. 22. Several council members criticized the cost spike Monday. They questioned the math and asked what other partners in the project – Bank of America, Wachovia and NASCAR – were doing to pitch in.

“I don't like hearing all of this two weeks before we're supposed to vote,” said council member Patsy Kinsey, who asked staff to reduce their request.

“There was a mistake made and it was a whopper,” said Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess, but she said she was open to the proposal. “Now we have to find a solution and do this project right.”

Mayor Pat McCrory admonished the staff for not communicating better with the public about the project.

Most of the increase – $17million – would go toward exhibits. It would push the exhibit budget to $30 million and allow for more “interactive” displays, said Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He said the hall would include a movie theater with 250 seats, three screens and rumbling surround sound.

“You'll feel like you're at a racetrack,” he said.

Kelley showed pictures of cars on a mock race track wrapping around the inside of the building. He described a simulated “pit crew challenge” that would have visitors mimic the hand-eye coordination needed to change a tire and fill a car with gasoline.

Less money would mean more “static” exhibits, Kelley said. He said the early investment would pay off in attendance.

“If you don't get it right, right off the bat, it's going to hurt your guest experience,” he said.

Councilman John Lassiter wondered how the cost estimate could have been so far off. He asked the city for the price of exhibits at other halls of fame.

“I need some comparable information, because I'm really struggling,” he said.

Assistant City Manager Jim Schumacher said planners have long known they would need more than the $13million originally budgeted for the exhibits. But when the project started, the city did not have all the funding sources it does now, including a 2percent hotel room tax, he said.

“We as the city did not want to commit to spend more,” he said. “We now have the 2percent tax that's been levied since 2006. The receipts for that tax are very good.”

Schumacher said new agreements with Bank of America, Wachovia and NASCAR also will allow the city to defer $2million in loan and royalty payments each year for five years. That money would be reinvested in the project and allow the city to borrow more.

He said he did not know how much more in interest the city would pay because of the deferrals.

City Council approval would not be the first cost increase to the project, originally budgeted at $160.5 million. In August 2007, the City Council added a $2.5 million basement. But Schumacher said Monday that that money just covered construction costs.

“Those dollars did not include finishing it, up-fitting it,” he said.

Schumacher said Monday that he's “99.9 percent sure” that this is the last time the project will need more money. “You can never be 100percent sure,” he said. “The good part of the story is getting a better facility, a facility that will be a stronger draw for visitors.”

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