It was mentioned in DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis’ State of the County speech last month and it’s beginning to raise some eyebrows: a proposed $1 million soap box derby track near Lithonia.
The track would be built at 1253 Rock Chapel Road adjacent to the Bransby YMCA on 10.9 acres purchased last year with approximately $600,000 from a parks bond approved by taxpayers in 2001.
Plans call for an 890-foot, two-lane track with a separate service lane. Included in the plans are a multi-use building for supplies and cars, a classroom, concession stand and a pavilion at the finish line. A grandstand on the banked sides of the track is planned.
“This facility will expand the diversity of recreational programs in DeKalb County, and will provide the first dedicated track in Georgia,” said Roy Wilson, director of the county’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs. “It will provide the county and the new Sports DeKalb association an opportunity to foster new partnerships by attracting non-traditional sponsors.
“It also promotes an environment in which families, clubs, scouting associations, church groups and others will work together to complete the soap box car from start to finish and teaches youth skills, sportsmanship and a healthy spirit of competition,” Wilson said.
Ellis’ administration has recommended a contract for the project to Astra Group Inc. of Woodstock but the plan has been held up. The Board of Commissioners’ finance committee has asked for an operational plan for the track.
Commissioner Elaine Boyer said, if given the choice, she would “absolutely” use the money for the track somewhere else because soap box racing is “a limited sport where not a lot of kids can participate.”
“It’s extremely limited and $1 million can go a long way to do something else at another park,” Boyer said. “No constituent group has ever called us about that. A million dollars—we’ve still got things that haven’t been done. Henderson Park could really use another million [dollars] to finish out that master plan that was adopted 10 years ago.”
“The [county’s] CEO has not put forward any business plan,” said Commissioner Lee May, chairman of the finance committee. “What kind of revenue would it generate?”
When the county built libraries using bond funds, some of the libraries remained closed because the county did not have funds to open the buildings, May said.
“We built libraries but didn’t give thought to operating them,” May said. “We didn’t plan forward. We have to begin to operate differently.”
May said he slowed down the progress of the soap box derby track to get some questions answered by the Ellis administration.
“We don’t even know who the target audience is,” May said. “We need a good business plan. It might be good. It sounds wonderful, but we have to operate efficiently.”
The proposed soap box derby track was part of a March 2010 agreement in which the Board of Commissioners approved a partnership with the YMCA to acquire, construct and operate recreational facilities in the county.
“County parks are not intended to be businesses or profit centers, thus there are no business plans for any parks property,” Wilson said. “There are some users and organizations that do pay a fee to defray expenses (such as swimming and golf), but the entire cost of the operation is not supported by this. Having said that, at the board’s request, we are formulating a business plan for this facility and will submit it to them within three weeks.”
County officials estimate that the derby will generate approximately $125,000 annually from sponsored events, association rentals and general public usage, Wilson said.
This amount would be sufficient to cover the operating expenses and periodic maintenance and repairs of the derby.
“The larger impact of the facility will be the ability to promote the track regionally, and to generate economic benefits to DeKalb as a destination for regional competitions,” Wilson said. “It is anticipated that since DeKalb County’s facility will be a dedicated track, the facility will be ideal for sanctioned events, test runs for new derby cars and the premier track to qualify for the championship race in Akron, Ohio.”
Wilson said the county’s parks and recreation department has had discussions with representatives of the soap box derby in the Atlanta area to establish a partnership with them similar to the youth athletic associations that the department has for baseball, softball, football, soccer or swimming.
In addition to sponsored events, the recreation department will rent the facility to associations on a half-day or one-day basis and will provide at least one day per week of open hours for the general public to practice running derby cars for a minimal fee, Wilson said.
Michael Rabern, president of the Dunwoody Northeast Georgia Soap Box Derby Association, one of two such associations in the Atlanta area, said, “If you’re looking at a business plan, entry fees aren’t going to offset the cost of the operations of a facility.”
A booster club has the ability to sell sponsorships and a weekend race or world championship would bring in money to the community, but “the real benefit is the county giving back to itself,” Rabern said.
Rabern, who said his Dunwoody group is “uniquely placed to help to manage a program, if asked,” described the proposed track as “a natural for DeKalb County.”
“It’ll make DeKalb County and that track a national focal point” for soap box derby racing, Rabern said. “To be able to have one in a temperate climate in a city as great as Atlanta…will be very advantageous.”
The Dunwoody soap box association, which represents Gwinnett, DeKalb, Clayton, Henry and Rockdale counties and part of Fulton, held two races last year and is planning up to three in 2012. Currently, the races are held on the property of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta in Dunwoody.
“We have to fit into other people’s schedules,” said Rabern, about not having access to a race site full time.
Rabern, who first raced at age 9 in front of the old Decatur High School, said the proposed track could help DeKalb County “to be known nationwide as the mecca in the Southeast for soap box racing.”
Rabern, who has talked with county officials about DeKalb’s plan to construct the track, said the track could also have an educational component.
“There’s a lot of physics and engineering in the construction of soap box cars,” Rabern said. At the facility, students could be taught those subjects, along with the skill of using tools, while assembling soap derby cars, whose prices start at approximately $450.
“It’s more than a bunch of elite people buying expensive cars and racing them,” Rabern said.