Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Thunderhill: thawing the development freeze

Thunderhill: thawing the development freeze
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
And then there was Thunderhill.
The racetrack outside of Willows ranks with the Johns-Manville factory – the two big Glenn County developments in the last half-century.
For director David Vodden, it was an education in how the planning process actually worked.
And with friendly supervisor Dick Mudd on his side, he was able to successfully tack against the wind.
According to an economic analysis prepared by Chico State’s Center for Economic Development, the racetrack has generated 301 jobs in the county.
So if Thunderhill evaporated tomorrow, the Glenn County unemployment rate would soon climb to 11.5% from 9.1%.
For the 15 years since the track was built, Thunderhill director David Vodden has been relaying his education on planning to fellow racing enthusiasts.
“It’s like a girl,” said Mr. Vodden.
He cuts off before continuing his courting analogy, exclaiming, “I can’t tell you that!”
When he started, he thought that would mean finding and buying land and telling county planning officials, “Hi, I’m David Vodden, and we want to put (a racetrack) here.”
“That failed in Stanislaus County,” he says. “It failed in Solano. We tried in Fresno” – but that failed too.
In Stanislaus, he remembers it being “very, very serious,” spending “not millions, not hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
In those counties, he took out an option on the land, designed a track, and used lots and lots of volunteer time – and then asked planning if he could build it.
“Nobody said, ‘when pigs fly.’”
“They say, fill out this form, fill out that form,” only to kill the project at the end.
“Neighbors understood the project as impacting them personally, and because they’d been there a long time...”
He did it that way, because, he recalls, “that’s the way we understood the system worked.”
The lesson he learned?
Give the reins to county officials, he saTys. Go to them and feed them this line: “Our future is in doubt. We want to build a home for the next 50 years. Would you be interested?”
“Then you ask, ‘where would we put such a facility?’”, Mr. Vodden says.
When he saw a San Francisco Chronicle front-page story on Yuba County being broke, he decided to go there, on the theory that “they might not turn out the military to oppose us.”
In the meeting, he found a silver bullet: Dick Mudd, Glenn County supervisor and racing fan.
Mr. Mudd did a lot of leg work, persuading people that the project would be an opportunity and not the downfall of the community.
“Being associated with someone local who was trusted and who could vouch for the project” definitely helped, Mr. Vodden recalls.
“I wasn’t Jesus,” Mr. Mudd says.
Knowing that the piece of property on which the track ended up being built was for sale, he told David Vodden about it.
Living in the area, Mr. Mudd knew a piece of land up for sale. It was, as Mr. Vodden says charitably, “kind of marginal farmland.”
So with the local dislike to building on good soil defrayed, Mr. Mudd went around to defray concerns about what type of people it would attract.
“This was a project that could have been, and probably was, misunderstood,” Mr. Vodden explained.
“Was it a circle track, a drag strip, what?  Racing people are, ‘fill in the blank.’”  
Mr. Mudd went around the county and asked people what they thought.
“They said, ‘hell, we’re going to have those people here?’”, he recalls. “Hell’s Angels were going around raping and throwing beer on people then.”
“And anyone coming out of San Francisco is subject to scrutiny.”
“They didn’t understand that the people coming here had money.”
“No one would have understood the actual demographic profile of the road racer,” Mr. Vodden agrees. “So that would have been misunderstood and possibly misused too.
Mr. Mudd said he took a lot of time, both in his district and others, to convince people.
To him, the main problem was a mindset thing.
Living in the country, “you get a bit on the independent side” and liable to pipe up when a big facility is proposed in your backyard.
Some requirements were still skirted around. The land got a tax break under the Williamson Act, which allows horse racing, but, it looked like, not auto racing.
The reaction then?
“Hell, those cars got a lot of horsepower,” Mr. Mudd recalls, laughing.
“Only this last year, the racetrack had to buy its way out of the Act, under scrutiny. It cost a lot of money.”
What was the eventual reaction to Mr. Mudd’s sales pitch?
“They said, 'if you think it’s all right, Dick, then we’re okay with it.'”
“Clearly Dick Mudd mitigated a great many unknown variables that could easily have been misunderstood,” Mr. Vodden says.
Otherwise, people could have “paint(ed) a picture of the project that, no matter how inaccurate, would have been fuel for opposition to a race track.”
Then, such perceptions could have been “easily used to stop the project by everyone and anyone who may have wanted to stop it for personal reasons or on general principles.”
“I think I was the only one on the board that knew about racing,” Mr. Mudd says. “The rest of the board – if (Thunderhill) suited me, it suited them.”
Mr. Vodden says he’ll never know for sure what would have happened without Mr. Mudd, and others also helped out a lot.
“But I think Dick did make the difference,” he concludes.

For the Thunderhill story:

What? The Thunderhill racetrack west of Willows.
Who? Proposed by David Vodden,
When? 1992
So what? Was rejected in Solano, Stanislaus, and Fresno counties first; today, provides 300 jobs, mostly because of visitors.
For: Willows Chamber of Commerce
Against: Rice farmers, Golden Pheasant Inn proprietor Jack Ortner
Killed by: Surprisingly, nobody – thanks in large part to the efforts of rancher, racing fan, and then-supervisor Dick Mudd.

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