Plot south­east of Austin no longer set for hous­ing

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Shonda No­vak

Or­ga­niz­ers of the pro­posed Austin For­mula One auto race plan to build the track on about 900 acres near El­roy in south­east­ern Travis County, ac­cord­ing to one of the ma­jor landown­ers in­volved.

The or­ga­niz­ers have called a news con­fer­ence for 10 a.m. to­day to an­nounce the site, a key fi­nan­cial backer and other de­tails. The press event will in­clude Tavo Hell­mund, who has been work­ing for more than two years to bring the high-pro­file race to Austin.

Most of the land was pre­vi­ously planned for a res­i­den­tial sub­di­vi­sion called Wan­der­ing Creek. It is land with rolling hills and a small lake, north of FM 812, south and west of El­roy Road and east of Texas 130.

“I’m elated and hope this all comes to fruition,” Bobby Ep­stein, an in­vestor in Wan­der­ing Creek, said Mon­day. “I’m highly op­ti­mistic that all the mov­ing

Con­tin­ued from A1 parts will come to­gether” in time for the inaugural Austin race in 2012.

Hell­mund has signed a con­tract with the For­mula One Group to bring a U.S. Grand Prix to Austin for 10 years.

“I’m re­ally ex­cited about it, more as a Texan and an Aus­ti­nite than a rac­ing fan,” Ep­stein added. “It would re­ally make a state­ment for Austin. I think it’s re­ally go­ing to be a big event for us.”

The States­man re­ported in June that Wan­der­ing Creek was a pos­si­ble site for the race­track.

The lo­ca­tion of the track has been a topic of in­tense spec­u­la­tion since May, when For­mula One Group CEO Bernie Ec­cle­stone an­nounced plans for a race in Austin.

Wan­der­ing Creek has about 650 acres, and or­ga­niz­ers have re­cently se­cured ad­ja­cent acreage, in­clud­ing land with more frontage on FM 812 and small parcels with ad­di­tional ac­cess to El­roy Road, ac­cord­ing to a source close to the event who could not be iden­ti­fied be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak ahead of to­day’s press con­fer­ence.

Or­ga­niz­ers kept the site se­cret, even from lo­cal of­fi­cials, un­til the land was se­cured and pri­vate in­vestors were lined up.

Cathy Olive, pres­i­dent of the El­roy Preser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, a neigh­bor­hood group, said she and other board mem­bers were sched­uled to meet Mon­day night with a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the race or­ga­niz­ers, pre­sum­ably to pro­vide a heads-up be­fore this morn­ing’s con­fer­ence.

She and some other lo­cal res­i­dents op­posed the orig­i­nal Wan­der­ing Creek plans, which called for 1,800 homes on small lots. She said she and “ev­ery sin­gle soli­tary per­son I have talked to” don’t want the track in their area, but all feel it would be prefer­able to dense res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment.

“We all feel like it would be the lesser of two evils,” Olive said. “Are we ex­cited about it? No. But it’s bet­ter than 2,000 teeny-tiny tract houses.”

Ep­stein, gen­eral part­ner of Prophet Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment Ltd., a pri­vate in­vest­ment firm, said he would be in­ter­ested in be­ing an in­vestor in the F1 deal.

“Even the peo­ple who think it’s good are un­der­es­ti­mat­ing how great this event could be,” Ep­stein said. “I think eco­nom­i­cally it would be a tremen­dous thing for Austin.”

Ep­stein said Kam Kro­nen­berg, a part­ner in Wan­der­ing Creek, ini­tially ap­proached him about buy­ing the land. Ep­stein said the 2007 pur­chase was his first in­vest­ment in real es­tate. He said he liked the prop­erty for sev­eral rea­sons, in­clud­ing that it was in the path of Austin’s growth and the Texas 130 toll­way.

But the op­po­si­tion from El­roy res­i­dents to the sub­di­vi­sion plan was some­thing “we cer­tainly didn’t know” when they bought the prop­erty, Ep­stein said.

At a later point, Ep­stein said, Kro­nen­berg ap­proached him with the For­mula One deal, say­ing pro­mot­ers were eye­ing Wan­der­ing Creek as one of sev­eral po­ten­tial sites.

“Ob­vi­ously as a landowner, I think it’s in­cred­i­bly lucky that this would have been se­lected as the site, as an out­come that was com­pletely un­fore­see­able when it was pur­chased as a res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment,” he said.

F1 races have had an un­even his­tory in the U.S. But Ep­stein said he thinks hav­ing a ded­i­cated, built-from-scratch course, where fans know the race will be held year af­ter year, com­bined with Texas hos­pi­tal­ity, will be the ticket to suc­cess in Austin.

Ad­di­tion­ally, he said, the in­vestor group is “ex­pe­ri­enced, cred­i­ble and sig­nif­i­cantly solid,” al­though he would not dis­close any names.

Hell­mund faces a tight sched­ule to get the track built. Wan­der­ing Creek’s own­ers al­ready have sub­mit­ted ap­pli­ca­tions to ex­tend wa­ter and waste­water treat­ment ser­vices to the land.

Austin and Travis County have set up a joint task force to han­dle per­mit re­quests, once the site is dis­closed.

Pro­mot­ers hope to have per­mits in place from the city and county to start grad­ing work on the site in De­cem­ber and re­main con­fi­dent they can have a track open in time.

State of­fi­cials have com­mit­ted to spend up to $250 mil­lion over 10 years to sup­port the race. The money would come from the Texas Ma­jor Events Trust Fund, which uses sales and other taxes gen­er­ated by ma­jor events to at­tract large events to the state.

Bobby Ep­stein pre­dicts a pos­i­tive im­pact from an F1 track.

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