Is Riverside Motorsports Park racing out of town?

Riverside Motorsports Park officials have instructed Merced County to cease all permitting work related to their proposal to build a massive motorsports complex near Atwater.

RMP has also asked the county to return money it handed over earlier this year after county officials said they wouldn't do any more work on the company's behalf unless it paid up front.

Though RMP officials insist they are not walking away from the quarter-billion-dollar project, their request, made this week, doesn't bode well for the proposal's future.

"Although we are terminating this contract, it should not be construed that we are abandoning the project at this time,” RMP's vice president, Mark Melville, said in a letter delivered to the county this week and obtained by the Sun-Star on Thursday. "You should know however that we continue to look at alternatives to lessen the project size while not compromising the economic (benefits) to the county.”

First proposed more than five years ago, the RMP project is still far from breaking ground. And this week's news raises even more questions about whether the racing complex, originally planned to replace 1,200 acres of farmland near Castle Airport, will ever be built.

Earlier this month, RMP CEO John Condren issued a statement saying the company is considering scaling back its plans from an eight-racetrack motorsports park to a four-track park about two-thirds the size of RMP's initial proposal.

Under the revised plan, RMP would include an oval speedway, a road course, a drag strip and a go-kart course, Condren said in the statement. RMP officials haven't ceased all work on RMP. According to Condren's statement, they are still attempting to find investors and banks to fund the project.

But, according to the letter RMP sent the county this week, the company has stopped working to secure the county permits and approvals it needs to break ground — seemingly because it no longer can afford to.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors approved RMP's proposal in December 2006 after heated public debate over whether the project should be built. But a judge threw out those approvals earlier this year when she ruled against RMP in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups and the Merced County Farm Bureau.

To regain those approvals, RMP must turn in to Merced County more detailed plans for its project. RMP must then conduct new studies on how its proposal would affect the environment and allow the public time to review those studies.

The Board of Supervisors would then have to vote in RMP's favor again.

All of that requires the time and effort of the county's planning department and legal counsel — and RMP must pay the county for those services.

RMP has been on shaky financial footing for many months, and it's had difficulty paying its bills. After the company failed for months to make more than $150,000 in delinquent payments to the county, the Board of Supervisors voted to require RMP to pay up front for future permitting and legal services.

In February, RMP gave the county $50,000 to place in a trust account from which the county could draw. Now RMP wants back whatever is left in the account.

"This letter is to serve as our official notice terminating (that) contract,” Melville wrote. "This letter is to also serve as a request to return to Riverside Motorsports Park all remaining funds in the trust fund including any interest within 15 calendar days.”

How much money RMP will get back is uncertain, county spokesman Mark Hendrickson said.

The county is now calculating RMP's outstanding bill to make sure nothing is missed, Hendrickson said.

"While we understand that RMP would like a refund, the county is going to approach the situation very cautiously to ensure that the Merced County taxpayer is held harmless from any expenses related to the RMP project,” Hendrickson said. "The last thing we'd want is to be left with an outstanding bill.”

Condren didn't return phone calls Thursday. Neither did RMP's two other officers, Melville and Jeanne Harper-Condren, who is also Condren's wife.

Neal Sebbard, one of two investment bankers working with RMP to secure investment capital and loans to build the complex, said Thursday that "a major household name in racing” is now interested in investing in RMP, although he declined to name the potential investor.

Some of Condren's earliest partners in RMP — many of whom have since split from Condren — have said he told them years ago that the money to build the complex was "in the bank.”

And as recently as a year ago, other RMP officials said the company had secured commitments to fund it.

RMP admitted late last year that it is still searching for capital.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.