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Steve Cameron: RMP -- I told you so

Steve Cameron

I'm certainly not the sort of person who smirks and says: "I told you so!"

But ...

I told you so!

Yes, the Riverside Motorsports Park fiasco finally has been buried. About time, too, since the thing never had the faintest heartbeat.

John Condren's parting statement that his $250 million vision of an auto racing Disneyland was undone by the current recession is, well ...

Hilarious.

It's funny enough for Chris Rock to make it a stand-up routine.

The truth is that Condren's plan was dead and beginning to smell when I arrived as sports editor of the Sun-Star in June 2006.

At that time, Condren was busy distributing fancy conceptual drawings of his fantasy park -- but he also had conned the public and Merced County public officials into believing his dreamland might someday be built.

It's also worth noting that by that same summer, Condren already had snatched all available money from his original investors and kicked them under a passing Greyhound.

So spare me the tales of economic tough times, John.

That's nonsense and you know it -- just as you always knew RMP was never more than an invisible business from which you could suck a handsome salary and some ungodly amount of bogus "expense money."

During my tenure at the Sun-Star, I wrote numerous commentaries -- all pointing to the cold, hard truth that Condren's puffed-up plan was impossible.

Financially impossible.

I've spent well over a decade reporting on the business side of sports and entertainment facilities -- how they're funded, how they operate and how you determine their value.

In fact, I'm still a regular contributor to Stadia magazine, an international publication that examines all phases of the sports venue industry.

You might want to pick an argument with me over, oh, I don't know -- something like whether Merced High should have kicked the PAT and played overtime in that section title game against Vacaville instead of going for the two points.

We can have some fun.

But please don't come to me with talking points about how Riverside Motorsports Park could have succeeded, how it might have given the county a huge shot in the arm, or how we almost became the auto racing center of the nation.

Nah.

This is my game, and I can tell you without a shred of doubt that when I first saw the cost figures for RMP -- sitting alongside the business model and projected revenue -- I knew instantly that the whole thing was a con game and that Condren was simply picking everyone's pockets for as long as the scam would hold up.

Before the whole RMP mess blew up, Condren was talking about getting money from private investors -- hah! -- and borrowing the remaining $170 million or so from some friendly bankers.

Something I wrote back then is worth repeating -- that the San Francisco Giants struggled finding $175 million to build what is now AT&T Park, despite the fact that the team was putting up another $175 million of its own and had massive guaranteed revenues at its disposal to service any loan.

In fact, then-CEO Peter Magowan was stunned to discover that he couldn't find financing in San Francisco and had to beg for that final $175 million through an institution in New York.

Now here's somebody like John Condren -- a guy who'd been through bankruptcy and several failed businesses -- who shows up in town and asks us to believe he can find a quarter-billion bucks in construction money for a gear-shift heaven in a barely accessible almond orchard.

It was absurd on the face of it, and I told Condren that in our one and only phone conversation. I implied some other things during that exchange, as well, but the Sun-Star's lawyers probably don't want to see them printed here.

Suffice to say, though, that as we look back ...

Well, my opinion of Condren, his plans and his motives seem justified.

But look, the important thing today -- and the reason I've written this piece -- is to beg the citizens of Merced County and their elected representatives not to spend too much time simply banging their fists about the past.

Please, please look forward.

Specifically, learn from the grotesque mistake of being duped by John Condren and make doggone sure nothing like RMP ever happens again.

Sure, I understand that the county wants to take advantage of new business opportunities. That's a correct attitude, but it doesn't mean you bow and scrape for every snake-oil salesman who drives over the mountain from Morgan Hill.

Voters, make it clear to your supervisors that you want serious oversight -- or that you'll chuck them out of office.

This is no joke.

Simply because county officials hugged and kissed Condren without even a simple, surface background check, you taxpayers are on the hook for several hundred thousand dollars.

You've been had. Suckered. Swindled. And ordinary citizens now must pay for this incredible error.

Back in the days when county officials were championing RMP, and many local businesses gave Condren credit that they now regret, it seemed impossible to make folks listen.

Board chairman Mike Nelson boasted that RMP would be his "legacy" in that position.

Still want that tattooed on your forearm, Mike?

Supervisor Kathleen Crookham justified the lack of fact-checking on Condren's background by claiming that any investigation of applicants -- for, oh, changing land uses -- would be "unfair."

Unfair to whom, exactly?

In retrospect, all of it was political malpractice. And so now county taxpayers must write the checks to clean up Condren's toxic dump site.

At least there should be a lesson learned from the Condren affair.

Counties and cities can't ever be so willing to entice new business that they neglect their basic obligation of protecting the people they serve.

Just a routine investigation -- a little due diligence -- would have saved everyone from RMP and the fiscal poison it spread.

Memo to Merced County: Tack up pictures of John Condren in all public buildings.

Might make you a bit ill, but at least it could stop you from doing something so stupid again.

And that might make the whole experience worthwhile.

Sort of.

Steve Cameron is former Sun-Star sports editor and currently a journalist/author who is also a contributor editor with Stadia magazine.

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