Even if the sight of cars racing at up to 200 miles per hour down Pratt Street toward the Inner Harbor doesn't rev your engine, the idea of adding another sporting event with the economic impact of the Preakness to Baltimore should. That's why the Board of Estimates' anticipated decision today to approve a five-year agreement with Baltimore Racing Development to bring an annual Indy Car race to the city, possibly in August of 2011, deserves cautious optimism. We're still a long way from seeing Danica Patrick fueling up at a pit stop near Camden Yards -- Indy Car's governing body hasn't committed to the race yet -- but the groundwork that has been laid so far suggests that the odds of it coming here are good. The city just needs to make sure it will be as positive an event as its sponsors promise.
Part of the agreement with BRD is a commitment that the city will spend nearly $8 million on street improvements along the 2.4 mile track, which would take cars past some of the city's most scenic spots downtown. That is substantially more than the initial estimates for the cost of necessary upgrades and appears to be more than other cities that have landed such events, such as St. Petersburg, Fla., had to spend before their inaugural races. The nightmare scenario for Baltimore is that this Indy Car race could meet the same fate as the Cadillac Grand Prix in Washington. The District had a 10-year agreement with promoters of that race and spent more than $5 million to create a track near RFK stadium. The inaugural -- and last -- race took place in 2002. Within a year, the deal had fallen apart amid complaints from neighborhoods affected by the race, leaving the city on the hook for the capital investment with little to show for it.
Boosters of the Baltimore race rightly note that come what may, the street improvements planned to make the race possible would also benefit city motorists. Indeed, few could argue that Baltimore's downtown streets could use some help. In that way, the outlay to attract this race is better than most government spending to support sporting events; spending to build a stadium or stand alone track has relatively little public benefit on days when an event doesn't take place. And the money isn't coming directly out of the cash-strapped city's coffers. About two-thirds of the cost would be covered by federal transportation funds, and the rest would come from what amounts to an advance from the state on Baltimore's annual highway appropriation. That isn't free money -- if it wasn't used for this purpose, the funds could go to fix roads elsewhere in the city -- but at least the city isn't closing rec centers to fund a race. Actual costs, though, will be greater because of the need for additional police presence on race days, among other things.
If the event is as good as its supporters say it will be, the investment will more than pay for itself. BRD has agreed to give the city an annual fee of $250,000, and the group's economic impact estimates say the event could draw more than 100,000 people downtown over the three days of races, bring more than $2 million a year in tax revenue and $50 million in ticket sales and added commerce for bars, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
Largely on those grounds, the neighborhoods that would be affected by the crowds and not insubstantial noise generated by all those race cars have been supportive of the concept. The key question will be if they will continue to be when faced with the reality of the event. It would snarl downtown traffic as much as the marathon does, and draw crowds like the Preakness -- for three straight days. As one Indy Car fan blogger cautioned, there is a down side to these street races: "What you will have by Sunday night are [angry] citizens who could not get from point A to point B for over a week, litter strewn streets downtown, puke covered sidewalks and a massive clean-up effort that will cost big bucks." The crowd at an Indy Car race isn't exactly the same demographic as the Preakness infield, but bringing that many people downtown would surely take a toll, as would the extensive preparations before a race — erecting barriers, grandstands, etc.
The key, then, will be for race organizers to work hard to stay in the neighborhoods' good graces and to mitigate the impact of the race. BRD's promise to donate at least $100,000 a year for community improvements is a sign that race organizers recognize that and plan to follow through. But the city needs to make sure BRD sees that as the beginning of its commitment to the affected neighborhoods, not the end.
The tourism and international exposure an Indy Car race could bring to Baltimore would be a tremendous shot in the arm for the city. Officials just need to be careful to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs.