Fed up with a prolonged property tax fight with Shawnee County, Heartland Motorsports Park owner Chris Payne told The Topeka Capital-Journal he is considering moving the multifaceted racing facility to the Kansas City area and razing the current site.
“Heartland Motorsports is considering its options and looking into relocating, only because of the current situation — the current taxes and the threat of increasing them annually on a 30-year-old facility that’s only open six, seven months a year,’’ Payne said. “You can relocate elsewhere, with less taxes and a new facility, and be better off.
“My intentions certainly wouldn’t have been in the beginning to spend millions of dollars to rejuvenate and rebuild the facility, knowing that this is how it was going to end up. My loyalty is towards Topeka, but Topeka doesn’t necessarily have loyalty towards Heartland, and I say that in reference to Shawnee County.
“They’re basically taxing me out of town or out of business.’’
Payne said the current tax situation makes it nearly impossible to run a profitable business.
“There’s no way to survive with paying $50,000 a month in property taxes,’’ he said. “We’ve got it around the 30 (thousand) mark, but that’s after we spent tens of thousands of dollars to get it pushed from near 40 to 30, and the county has implied that they’re going to keep pushing and they’d just as soon see it at close to $50,000 a month.
“It would be hard to justify ($50,000) a year, much less every 30 days.’’
Taxes on Heartland Motorsports Park property, as well as other mostly vacant lots that Payne owns around the racetrack, in 2018 totaled nearly $344,000 for the year. That breaks down to about $28,700 per month for Payne’s company, Shelby Development.
Payne currently owes nearly $522,000 in back taxes to Shawnee County, according to the Shawnee County Appraiser’s website. That includes payments that weren’t made in 2016, 2017 and the first half of 2018 payments that were due in December.
Payne referred to the fact that he and his attorney appealed the Heartland Motorsports Park property valuation to the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals. In a June 2018 decision, the board dropped the 2017 valuation for Payne’s property from $10.4 million to $7.5 million.
That BOTA agreement was a stipulated agreement, said Shawnee County Commissioner Bob Archer.
“The owner stipulated to the value that we set,” he said. “He agreed with it.”
Shawnee County Appraiser Steve Bauman said there have been multiple stipulated agreements on the valuation since Payne acquired the track. In 2016, the county valued the property at about $8.9 million, he said, but dropped it under agreement to $5.7 million. In 2017, after Payne made significant improvements at the property, the valuation was raised to $10.4 million. That was dropped to $7.5 million under the stipulated agreement.
In an effort to resolve the challenges with Heartland, Payne said, he has proposed donating Heartland Motorsports Park property to the city. He said that offer has been declined.
“I offered to donate everything back to the city, with no liabilities,’’ he said. “No financial liabilities, no obligations — donate everything back that they had lost for the good of Heartland staying in Topeka, and they declined.
“The city would own it and it would be tax exempt. The facility would probably pay rent to the city, so the city would get income off of it, but it would be their property. That makes it even more saddening, that they think so little of Heartland.”
Topeka city manager Brent Trout said he and Mayor Michelle De La Isla met with Payne to discuss Heartland Motorsports Park’s future. He disagreed that they rejected Payne’s idea of city ownership but said he could understand why Payne may have thought they did, because they haven’t reached out to him in the weeks since that meeting.
“It is something that is being reviewed,” he said. “There are concerns about whether that would be appropriate for us to do.”
Such a move would require going to the Topeka City Council for discussion and a decision, Trout said.
“I don’t have it scheduled for discussions on any agendas in the near future,” he said.
Payne, who purchased the facility in 2016, said he has started looking for a new home for Heartland.
“We’re in negotiation on several different parcels of ground large enough to facilitate the relocation of Heartland Motorsports Park,’’ he said. “It will take every bit of two years. The wheels are in motion.
“I would like to identify (a new site) this spring, in the next 60 to 90 days. Even though the wheel is in motion, it turns very slow. You’ve got to present a design, you’ve got to get approval and we’re doing that preliminarily already, before we choose a piece for the final parcel.’’
Payne said he also has started the process of preparing to leave the current site.
“We have several parts of the land up for sale already at Heartland Motorsports Park, and we’re taking bids to remove some of the buildings,’’ Payne said.
“If and when we exit, we will go back and scrape the property clean. It won’t be worth anything more than vacant land like there is so much of already out there. It will just blend in like the rest of it.’’
Upon hearing that Payne is talking with other communities about relocating Heartland Motorsports Park, Trout said the situation is “concerning.”
“Definitely we’ll need to reach out to him and have a discussion about the issues,” he said. “We would not want this to happen without an opportunity to discuss again what’s possible.”
While the future of Heartland Motorsports Park is uncertain, Payne said the upcoming 2019 season will proceed as planned, including the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals, which will be held June 7-9.
Payne said “the facilities will have the busiest and most successful schedule of events in more than a decade.”
“This is a business that’s just going to relocate,’’ he said. “It’s still the same business, nothing changes. If anything, we’re going to postpone some new larger events coming to Heartland so they don’t get moved twice. We’re just going to have to quietly wait for two years until we get to our new location before they move here.’’
Payne expressed sadness at the possibility of eventually closing the current facility, which opened in 1989 and has hosted at least one NHRA national event every year since then.
“It’s beyond sad,’’ Payne said. “Personally, it’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I don’t quite understand how it got to this point, but it is what it is. At some point I have to put my emotions aside, and for the good of the racetracks, we have to move on.’’
The loss of Heartland Motorsports Park would be tough for Topeka, said Brett Oetting, president and CEO of Visit Topeka.
Although he didn’t have complete economic impact numbers available Wednesday afternoon, Oetting said he could point to the track’s impact on hotels.
He said people in town for races book about 20,000 hotel rooms per year, which is 4 percent of the total room nights for the city annually.
“This is probably a little conservative — it would be $1.9 million in hotel revenues, which would be 5 percent of the city hotel revenues (total),” Oetting said. “That would equate to about $200,000 in sales tax collections.”
In addition, the city would lose $133,000 from its transient guest tax collections, commonly called a bed tax, he said.
“Overall, this would be a devastating loss to Topeka,” Oetting said.