Council OKs millions for NASCAR hall

The Charlotte City Council agreed Monday to increase the NASCAR Hall of Fame budget by $32 million to boost exhibits and pay for unexpected building costs.

The 9-2 decision came after council members chastised city staff and other hall planners for not telling them sooner about the price hike. Council members complained of early, “lowball” estimates of the exhibit costs. They asked how the extra money would help attendance. And they said they felt trapped.

“It would be helpful if we had a heads-up earlier than we did this time,” said Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess.

But in the end Burgess voted for the increase, saying the hall should be “whiz-bang on day one.” She also pointed out that paying for it will not affect property taxes.

She was joined by council members Warren Cooksey, Andy Dulin, Nancy Carter, Warren Turner, John Lassiter, Edwin Peacock and Anthony Foxx.

Council members Patsy Kinsey and Michael Barnes opposed the increase. Kinsey said she could not support it while residents are worrying so much about the economy.

“I just in good conscience can't vote for $32 million,” she said.

The vote brings the project's total cost to $195 million – all of it paid for by a mix of hospitality taxes and money from land sales. Most of the project's funding comes from a hotel room tax that can not be used for anything else.

Of the additional money, $17 million will be used to improve the range of exhibits in the building, which is scheduled to open in April 2010. The hall's designers say interactive exhibits – rather than more static, museum-like stations – are essential for attracting visitors and making the project a success.

Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble said Monday that income from the tax has been better than expected, enough to cover ongoing costs of refreshing the hall exhibits. He said revenue estimates have been conservative, and the project well thought-out.

“We did not come to this recommendation lightly,” he said.

Tim Newman, head of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, urged the City Council to invest in the exhibits now or risk a poor reception upon the hall's opening.

“It's a much more efficient investment if we do it now and make sure we succeed,” he said.

Mayor Pat McCrory said he doubted this would be the last problem with the project. But he, too, urged council not to hold back the extra funding.

“Now is not the time to do a second-rate project,” McCrory said. “This has got to be a sustainable project that has repeat visitors.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer