Developer backing out of $4.8 million Motorsports deal

Questions about creating a new East Tennessee destination, land use, noise, jobs.
Published: Apr. 5, 2021 at 6:55 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 13, 2021 at 6:16 PM EDT
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Oak Ridge, Tenn. (WVLT) -UPDATE: Developer H.E. “Rusty” Bittle announced Tuesday, April 6 he is backing out of the $4.8 million deal with the Industrial Development Board to create Oak Ridge Motorsports Park.

Bittle says he is considering other locations in East Tennessee that already meet his zoning needs and are ready for construction.

“An East Tennessee motorsports park is a legacy project for me. The State of Tennessee has a reputation for automotive excellence, we are leading the way on advanced transportation technologies like electric vehicles, lightweight composites and artificial intelligence. A motorsports park will help the state and host community build an international reputation for next generation transportation technologies and become a tourism destination for automotive enthusiasts,” said Bittle.

Bittle says he received new information from the DOE regarding an the Environmental Impact Statement to be completed.

“We received new information from DOE late last week that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be completed at The Horizon Center. The additional testing could cost an excess of $7M and take an upwards of 3-4 years, with no guarantees that final approval would be received. Ultimately, this new information has led me to identify another host community in East Tennessee,” said Bittle.

Oak Ridge Manager Mark Watson released a statement following Bittle’s announcement on Tuesday.

“When the concept of the motorsports park was presented to the city, it provided a unique vision to develop this land that was set aside 25 years ago to be used for industrial development. The City has spent a lot of time researching this idea and while it’s a great project, it’s ultimately a matter of community choice. These kinds of facilities need a specific type of space and this is what the City had to offer. The three parcels offered by the Industrial Development Board allowed the concept to develop by using the gentle contours of the land in a very unique way. There was strong support for the project — both in town and regionally — and many people wanted it to remain as is, keeping the protected environmental zones,” said Watson.

Watson says the land will continue to be offered for industrial development and industrial use within the restrictions established by the Department of Energy.

If you buy a car that can easily handle a speed well over the legal limit, chances are you may want to try it on the safety of a track. Yet, the luxury sports car world looks nothing like other sports car series.

Knoxville area developer H.E. “Rusty” Bittle enjoys racing cars so much that he is willing to drive several hours for a weekend event at a speedway like Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. His idea to bring a new destination for luxury racing called Oak Ridge Motorsports Park is creating a lot of excitement and concern.

“The thing that I’m most excited about is the fact that instead of traveling every weekend to go to a venue, I get to stay here in Knoxville,” said Bittle.

President Shannon Harper of Harper Auto Square shares Bittle’s enthusiasm, saying his clients would likely spend lots of time using a track near Knoxville to test the limits of a Porsche or other vehicle. “Unlike what you see in the oval tracks. This is not a Talladega or a Bristol Motor Speedway. This is more of a park-like setting.”

Motorsports event organizer Josh Vandergriff also shares the excitement for more venues to drive around East Tennessee. He hosts Smoky Mountain Drives, Rennsport Dragon Rally and other events near the mountains. “People drive from all over the world even to drive the legendary Tail of the Dragon. So, this would just be another reason to stay a couple extra days and drive your car on the track while you’re out here.”

Concerns come from residents wondering about jobs, land use, and potential noise. The proposed development would be on the west end of the City of Oak Ridge, on the Roane County side of the city that spans both Roane and Anderson Counties. There are citizens involved in a Scrap the Track Coalition. Willem Blokland is President of Oak Ridgers for Responsible Development, saying some residents like him want more high-tech industry jobs at the Horizon Center site. “How much you earn, how many people get a job if it was industry versus a racetrack. The industry is very much better. So, there’s no comparison.”

Don Barkman lives in a neighborhood close to the proposed site, and is concerned about what he’ll hear from his back porch. “The developer is asking the residents to take all the risk that he’s right when he says there won’t be noise.

Bittle has tried to ease concerns about noise, “We will do further noise studies as we get farther along. But we are willing to do what it takes to mitigate those sounds and meet the city’s pretty strict noise ordinance that they have.”

Ecologist Jimmy Groton is an environmental scientist who serves on the board for Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning and is concerned that a huge recreational facility could not be built without disturbing three federally set-aside natural areas.

“We’re alarmed at the possibility that the natural areas might not be protected anymore. The original intent of this, of the Horizon Center was that they would provide a good job base with good jobs, industrial jobs, and also protect the natural environment around it and provide habitat for all kinds of animals and plants,” Groton said.

When asked by WVLT specifically about one of the areas, known as a beech forest, Bittle replied, “The beech forest, when we originally did that what you see as our concept plan, that is a very rough draft, that was our first round, and I was under the impression that the city or the IDB (Industrial Development Board) owned that portion that land and I since found out they do not. So we will be avoiding the beech trees period.”

Explore Oak Ridge President Katy Watt said about business and jobs, “I think the more people that do come in as visitors, we are gonna see more jobs opening up in our hospitality area. So, I think that by doing that and then having our visitors spending more money and increasing our tax base, that’s gonna help. It is a different type of job. We’re also hoping that it opens it up to a lot of research and development that could be developed down in that area and tested around a motorsport park.”

Bittle hopes to manage to bring the best of all worlds to Oak Ridge - luring car enthusiasts, convincing folks that he can attract enough well-paying jobs for the area, and preserving enough green space to meet stewardship expectations.

Bittle’s plan includes dining and even camping spots. “We want to have a multifaceted entertainment destination versus just a track.”

The city must decide if it can create a new special zoning class to meet the requirements for something like Oak Ridge Motorsports Park. The developer is still in his due diligence period for the $4.8 million dollar purchase of the property at Horizon Center.

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