Originally created 03/28/04

On growth's fast track



CECIL, Ga. - This sleepy town 200 miles south of Atlanta has 265 residents, one store, no sewer system and no traffic lights. The motel has been abandoned for nearly 20 years, and though the town owns a police car, it does not employ any officers to drive it.

Change is coming to Cecil, mhowever, in the form of a $4 million raceway that's scheduled to open this spring. The South Georgia Motorsports Park is expected to attract about 200,000 people a year for drag and stock car races, concerts, rodeos and other events.

Officials say it will pump an estimated $37 million into the economy of south-central Georgia and will generate new jobs at the track and in surrounding communities that serve the fans.

The park is set to open with National Hot Rod Association races April 23-24. Its first major race will be a hot rod event June 4-6 that was traditionally held at the Atlanta Dragway.

The park is planning weekly events, including monster truck shows, swap meets and motorcycle days, speedway Manager Tim Pafford said.

"We're trying to touch all our potential customers with some form of recreation," he said.

Tiered seats will accommodate 6,000 fans, with VIP booths on top of the stands. The 4,100-foot dragway is on one side of the stands; a half-mile oval track for stock cars is on the other side. Also planned are a motocross track, an RV park, a soapbox derby track and an offsite restaurant.

Mayor Mike Yates says initial local opposition to the project has largely subsided. So for now, Mr. Yates is concentrating on trying to recruit a police department.

"With all the influx, we want to ensure our residents are looked after," he said. "We're going to do everything we can do to make it a success. We expect to see some growth. We just want to manage the growth and not affect the people who have lived here."

Zafar Iqbal, who runs Cecil's only store, a grocery, already works 13 hours a day, six days a week at his store. He takes a break each Sunday by keeping it open for only eight hours, but he says he's ready for the influx of customers the park could bring.

"Right now, it's only a one-person job, but if I have to hire more, I will," he said.

Many of the town's elderly residents drop in each morning to drink coffee and to discuss world events. At noon, farm workers come in for soft drinks and snacks. Throughout the day, Mr. Iqbal's regulars trickle in for everything from eggs to duct tape. The track, located one mile north of town, has been a hot topic at the store for months.

"Everybody is talking about it," said Mr. Iqbal's wife, Wanda. "Everybody is excited."

The racetrack has been a joint effort of Cook County, the county's economic development commission and the communities of Cecil and Adel, seven miles to the north. Valdosta contractor Larry Dean is financing and building the park on 350 acres.

Adel's sewer lines will run south to the park. Cecil officials want to extend the line to their town. Cecil already has linked the park to its water system, and the county will widen U.S. Highway 41 in front of the park to accommodate the flood of fans. The road runs parallel with Interstate 75, a major north-south tourist route that will bring visitors right to the motorsports park via the Cecil exit.

The 110-room Family World Motel will eventually reopen. The motel closed down nearly 20 years ago after its sewage began spilling onto the highway.

Property owner John Williams says he hopes to reopen part of the facility later this year.