Bill Schottenstein is not a NASCAR fan. But he's learning. When the Franklin County commissioners voted to sell Cooper Stadium to him in May, the principal of Arshot Investment Corporation got one $3.3 million-step closer to realizing his decade-long dream of refitting the 78-year-old baseball stadium with a brand new motor-sports complex-including a half-mile racetrack and a drag strip.

Bill Schottenstein is not a NASCAR fan. But he's learning. When the Franklin County commissioners voted to sell Cooper Stadium to him in May, the principal of Arshot Investment Corporation got one $3.3 million-step closer to realizing his decade-long dream of refitting the 78-year-old baseball stadium with a brand new motor-sports complex-including a half-mile racetrack and a drag strip.

But before the idea takes flight, Schottenstein might have to take a few moments to learn about the birds- and the powerful organizations that watch them. In its early stages, the project has the area's bird-watchers, well, flapped.

"He has always thought this would be a viable use for the site," said Joe Sugar, Arshot's attorney, who classified Schottenstein as a "believer in downtown Columbus," more than a devoted auto-racing fan.

The problem, however, is that Cooper Stadium is virtually surrounded by the 360-acre Green Lawn Cemetery-arguably Central Ohio's most popular bird-watching locale. Green Lawn's large, heavily treed green preserve near the confluence of two major rivers-the Scioto and the Olentangy-makes it a popular resting spot for migrating birds. So popular, in fact, that the Audubon Society has designated it as one of its national Important Bird Areas.

"If your heartbeat quickens a bit at the sight of a Baltimore oriole or a scarlet tanager, you are on your way to understanding what an Important Bird Area is," the Audubon Ohio website tells us.

NASCAR wouldn't jive with the aptly named habitat because "revving engines could disrupt mating and migratory habits of the more than 200 species of birds that visit the urban habitat," not to mention put at risk anyone's hopes of a peaceful and respectful graveside service, said Linda Burkey, general manager of Green Lawn.

"I'm not aware of a motor speedway next to any IBA," said Jerry Tinianow, director of Audubon Ohio, adding ominously that in North Carolina, Audubon effectively succeeded in blocking a U.S. Navy airstrip development because of migratory bird concerns.

Arshot has signed a 17-month contract with the county, and must work through a rezoning process with the city of Columbus before moving forward with the racetrack plans. But there's more than Schottenstein's dream on the line. Just before the vote, Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy emphasized that the funds from the sale would allow the county to keep another promise-namely, paying for the new $55 million Clipper's stadium in the Arena District.

Last week, Kilroy found herself at a loss for words when asked how refurbishing the Coop with an auto-racing complex fits into the county's newfound green philosophy. Commissioners have become well-versed in extolling the virtues of the county's recent eco-friendly efforts, whether they're talking about the state's first $105 million green courthouse, or the lesser-known Paper Usage Conservation Policy, whereby "two-sided copying will become the norm," as touted in a recent press release.

Sale of the Coop, however, likely is motivated by a different kind of green. Still, credit Kilroy with a save: Looking over the selling agreement, she answered, "I would say that we don't want to leave the environment of that community with an abandoned, crumbling stadium. That would certainly be detrimental to the environment."

Sugar was quicker. "We plan to reuse as much of the existing facility as possible," he said. "That's a lot of steel that won't be headed for the landfill."

Sugar and county officials agree that the project satisfies a number of criteria-most importantly, putting a vacant stadium to a use that easily could become a popular regional destination.

But to Tinianow, who also is a member of a newly formed civic group, ROARColumbus, which stands for Redevelop Our Area Responsibly, Schottenstein's racing plan seems like a rushed, petroleum-heavy project that's out of step with local government's efforts to go green.

"We never thought we'd see something like drag racing or stock-car racing," said Carol Stewart, longtime civic activist and president of the Franklinton Area Commission. "The noise is a huge, huge concern."

The proposal, however, should not have come as a surprise to many. Schottenstein-who did not return calls for this story-has floated the idea of converting Cooper Stadium into a race track for more than a decade. But with the Clippers move to Huntington Park in the Arena District next spring, those plans have never been closer to reality.

Stewart and her fellow ROARers called on county and city officials this week to scrap proposed plans for the stadium. "This is like Skybus-without the wings," said Tinianow. "Have we learned nothing? Are we in total denial about fuel shortages? Why would we build a monument to the glorification of the internal combustion engine-especially right now?"

Audubon Ohio has raised its profile-and possibly its influence-locally in recent years as a partner with the city of Columbus and Metro Parks in a long-time-coming plan to turn the nearby Whittier Peninsula into an urban park, anchored by the state's first urban Audubon Nature Center, which would provide outdoor education to traditionally underserved areas.

Tinianow also is working with ROAR members who are worried that the noise from speeding cars could affect not only the nearby cemetery/bird sanctuary, but the 2,000-plus human inhabitants around Cooper Stadium as well, not just disturbing their peace, but causing their property values to plummet.

"We'd like the developer to think of a Plan B for the property rather than a racetrack," said Regina Tobin, a German Village Realtor and organizer of ROAR. Tobin said her group, which includes concerned business owners and residents, has met with an acoustics engineer who says the racing sounds could travel far, echoing and ricocheting off Downtown buildings, potentially reaching as far as Miranova.

Sugar said alarms are sounding too soon. "Dollars poured into the area could spur economic development and job growth. We understand that needs to be balanced against the noise issues. We think we can accomplish that."

Tinianow thinks Columbus has outgrown Schottenstein's dreams of the fast and furious.

"After all the work we've been doing to make Columbus a green city, this is such a giant step backward for no reason," Tinianow said, holding up Mayor Mike Coleman's push to make Columbus a bike-friendly town that's less reliant on foreign oil.

Thus far, Coleman has yet to pick a side. City spokesman Dan Williamson said the mayor is well aware of noise issues and is "observing discussions," to see how the county will answer concerns.

Whichever way Coleman comes down, "it will be a test to see if he stays true to his green stripes," Tinianow said, urging Schottenstein to adjust his vision. "Building a track of this sort made sense back when his dream began, but times have changed."

If Schottenstein wants racing, Tinianow says, he should adopt recent two-wheeled trends and build a Velodrome-or a competitive bicycle-racing track-at Cooper Stadium, "He, and Columbus, could come out looking like a genius," said Tinianow.

The car thing is simply going out of style, he added.

"Maybe we should just put up a set of three flag poles" in front of the stadium-one each for oil-rich Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, Tinianow said.

Woody Woodruff, spokesperson for Jegs Racing in Delaware, seemed less patriotically troubled.

Nationally, motorsports have become very big hospitality business for entertaining corporate clients, he said. Inviting an out-of-towner to watch a race from a racing suite, and "having our city skyline in the background-it could be pretty powerful."

Corporate types in Columbus are wisely on board with auto racing, Woodruff said. As of 2008, Nationwide Insurance became the title sponsor of the No. 2 series in NASCAR, which draws almost 3 million attendees in a couple dozen races across the country each year. It is also the official auto, home and life insurance provider of NASCAR.

Columbus's venue would not be limited to motorsports, Sugar said. Developers have said they envision a track that could be utilized by motorcycle racers and car enthusiasts alike. Extreme sports, go-karts and motorcycles also are on the list of possibilities.

Sugar said that Arshot will take everything-including bird concerns-into account as it draws up plans in the next 15 months.

"Bill made it clear publicly that a noise study would be an important part of the process," he said. "We are sensitive to the bird habitat and the concerns of the neighbors."

Preliminary reports from consultants have suggested that the freeway will help ameliorate a lot of noise from the facility, and that "there are a lot of things you can do, as far as designing the facility, to force the sound up instead of out," he said.

While plans aren't expected until at least later this summer, Arshot likely will not have to go out of its way to sell commissioners on the idea.

"It's going to be a great success," Kilroy said. "It's a car race and Americans love car races."

But do they love birds more?

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