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Nate Ryan, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Warner, Fans Drive Home Their Point

Whipping a Capitol Square crowd into a frenzy several times, Gov. Mark R. Warner mixed passion with pragmatism while making his pitch for a NASCAR Hall of Fame expected to require a “substantial“ state investment.

“I’m not only a governor but a businessman,” Warner said. “I told them I’m a racing fan, but I’ve got to be first and foremost a good steward of the taxpayer dollars. There’s not going to be a deal here if it’s not a good deal for the Virginia taxpayers.”

During yesterday’s NASCAR site visit, Warner said Virginia’s contribution to the proposed $103 million shrine likely would include cash and tax-increment financing, which involves using additional tax revenue generated by a new development to pay off its debt. But he declined to specify an amount before the project reaches the negotiation stage.

Yesterday marked NASCAR’s final stop on a two-week tour of five cities bidding for its first officially sanctioned Hall of Fame. Richmond’s primary site is a 250-acre tract on the southeastern corner of the northern junction of Interstates 95 and 295 in Henrico County.

Plans are for the 129,000-square-foot museum to be built as part of a hotel-and-retail complex that would generate an annual economic impact of $188 million that far surpasses the projections of rivals Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Daytona Beach, Fla., and Kansas City, Kan.

Warner said any potential investment in the hall would “go through the same type of economic analysis in terms of payback as with the Philip Morris facility,” referring to the future $300 million research facility downtown. The state chipped in $15 million for that project; its hall contribution, which would be augmented by private donors and Henrico County, could be far greater.

“We think it will be a great long-term investment,” Warner said.

Warner served as the primary cheerleader for the bid assembled by Virginians Racing for the Hall of Fame during much of its six-hour pitch to 10 NASCAR executives who are part of a management team assembled to weigh the five proposals.

While the area’s attractive location – 55 million people live within 300 miles of Richmond – was the nonprofit group’s primary selling point, the stock-car spirit of a city that soon will play host to its 28th consecutive Nextel Cup sellout also was on display.

Arriving at Riverfront Plaza yesterday morning for a formal presentation in the West Tower, the group’s executive director, Josh Lief, pumped his right fist to cheers from an enthusiastic crowd of 200 greeting the bus carrying the NASCAR team.

After lunch at the Executive Mansion, Warner, with the help of police who cleared a path in a packed section of Capitol Square, led the delegation through a crowd of 500 that spent much of 30 minutes chanting “Richmond, Richmond, Richmond.”

Pausing outside the Patrick Henry Building with a checkered flag in his right hand, Warner introduced the gathering to NASCAR Chief Operating Officer George Pyne.

“Please welcome me in telling George and NASCAR where we want the Hall of Fame,” Warner said. “With this kind of fan support, we can’t go wrong.”

Inside during a 30-minute news conference, Pyne complimented Warner several times for making the case for central Virginia.

“However big my ear was before lunch, it’s half of what it is now,” Pyne said. “[Warner] wasn’t here just to support the initiative. He actually was conversant on every single detail. That speaks volumes of what NASCAR means to Virginia. From the governor on down, this was a place where we were wanted.”

Pyne said NASCAR’s status “as the only professional sport in Virginia“ was important, as was Richmond’s I-95 accessibility.

Virginians Racing for the Hall of Fame offered a second potential site, at the Richmond International Raceway complex, but NASCAR Vice President Mark Dyer, who is spearheading the selection process, said the focus was on the I-95/295 location because it’s “starting from a blank sheet of paper and there’s all kind of hotel and retail possibilities.”

Warner said that set Richmond apart from rivals whose proposals are less comprehensive.

“Public perception is that we started this process not as far along as some other communities,” Warner said. “I think we have clearly moved up.”

But had Richmond moved ahead? That might have been the only question the governor was unsure about yesterday.

“I’ve been in enough of these types of meetings, and you can tell when you’re getting through,” Warner said after a long pause. “I think we made an impression.”