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Mideast group plans Fort Erie speedway

A Kuwaiti financial company is leading a group that plans to spend almost $172 million (U.S.) to build a NASCAR-ready race track and entertainment complex in Fort Erie, officials in Ontario announced Tuesday.

The Middle East-based consortium says it will build the 65,000-seat facility on a 623-acre parcel located less than four miles from the border.

Investors and local officials say the complex will create 1,200 construction jobs, draw new visitors to Ontario and generate the equivalent of more than $29 million annually in new tax revenue.

"This type of facility is not available anywhere in Canada at this time," Douglas Martin, mayor of the Town of Fort Erie, told The Buffalo News after a news conference on the project.

Bayt Al Mal Investments, an Islamic investment bank based in Kuwait, is leading the group that plans to build the race track to the specifications required to host a NASCAR race.

Investors intend to attract several different levels of auto racing to the track, and NASCAR officials have said they want to hold a top-tier race in Canada.

"They know that we've got race fans in Ontario," said James A. Thibert, president of the Fort Erie Economic Development and Tourism Corp.

The track would be located just off the Queen Elizabeth Way, between Bowen and Gilmore roads, officials said. About 120 full-time employees would operate the facility.

The complex could be expanded to 100,000 seats, and it will contain both a one-mile oval track and a 2 1/2 -mile road course.

The sprawling complex could include retail shops, a hotel and space for research and development work, Martin said.

Alternative fuels could be developed and tested on the site, for example, officials said.

"It's going to be operating 365 days a year," Martin said.

The Fort Erie mayor has been working on the project with Bayt Al Mal Investments -- "bayt al-mal" is an Arabic term that translates as "house of wealth" -- for about 18 months.

Martin and economic development officials were in Dubai last week meeting with Bayt Al Mal executives to close a deal.

The other investment partners were not identified.

Local officials say the investment in the motor-speedway complex will be the first of many linking Ontario to the Middle East.

They said a race track would lure more tourists to the region, keep them here longer and fit well with Fort Erie Race Track & Slots, Niagara Fallsview Casino and other attractions in Southern Ontario.

"The region will receive a huge shot in the arm through increased economic development and tourism," Peter Partington, the Niagara regional chairman, equivalent to the Erie County executive, said in a statement.

Officials say they hope to attract a range of races to the venue, perhaps up to the top Sprint Cup Series NASCAR races.

"We know, for instance, NASCAR would like to be in Canada. They've said that publicly on several occasions," Thibert said.

Those races tend to draw people who live within an eight-hour drive of the track, and a circle of that distance drawn out from Fort Erie would capture 170 million people in both countries, he said.

This is at least the second attempt to bring a speedway to Fort Erie. In late 2005, a group of investors sought to construct a NASCAR-ready track at the site of the International Country Club golf course in Stevensvile.

That track never was built.

Although the region is accustomed to being teased by splashy announcements of large economic-development projects that never materialize, Martin and Thibert are optimistic this one will be built, if the required local, regional and provincial approvals can be obtained.

The project will need a zoning change and will have to overcome environmental hurd-les as well as any objections from neighbors, the officials said.

Design and engineering work on the project, and testing on the site, has started.

Construction could begin next year, with a track opening in 2010, Martin said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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