The Baltimore Grand Prix has certainly come a long way since its first year, when the event drew a reported 160,000 fans to the Inner Harbor but organizers were unable to pay millions of dollars they owed to the city and to assorted private vendors. New, more professional management (backed by investors with deeper pockets) has stabilized the operation during the last two years, even if the race has yet to make a profit, and IndyCar officials say they hope to keep the event here for the foreseeable future.
Yet it remains unclear just how good a thing that is for the city. Let's forget Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's hyperbole before the first race that the event would be a "game changer" for Baltimore. We'd settle for an event whose benefits for Baltimore clearly outweigh its costs and aggravations, and on that score, the jury is still out — particularly with respect to future years when it likely cannot be held on Labor Day weekend.
Race officials have yet to release attendance figures for this year's event, but hotels downtown posted strong occupancy rates on Friday and Saturday during race weekend, though not as much on Sunday. Vendors and other businesses inside the race perimeter also generally appeared satisfied this year, and Federal Hill, the neighborhood most directly affected by the Grand Prix, managed to make the most of a difficult situation by hosting a "Cars on Cross" event that drew several hundred race fans on Saturday night.
But restaurants, bars and other businesses east of the racecourse reported disastrous sales last weekend. The city's warnings of traffic delays downtown appear to have been a bit too effective, as those not attending the race avoided not only the immediate area around the course but also neighborhoods as far away as Fells Point and Canton. Many downtown office workers took the Friday of race weekend off or worked from home, leading to difficult-to-calculate losses of productivity and exacerbating the race's impact on nearby bars and restaurants. The influx of thousands tourists for the race weighs against the inconvenience for thousands of commuters as the course is constructed and torn down in the days before and after the event.
A spokesman for Mayor Rawlings-Blake says she hears those complaints but remains steadfast in her belief that the race is a net positive for the city compared to the economic activity traditionally associated with tourism on Labor Day weekend, not usually a strong one for the city.
It's unclear how much effort the city has put into trying to quantify the notion that the race's pluses have outweighed its minuses. But even if we take for granted that they have so far, the fact that scheduling conflicts with other big events appear to make Labor Day weekend unavailable for the Grand Prix in 2014 and 2015 should require some second thoughts. After all, holding the race on another weekend may serve less to create new economic activity than to displace existing tourism. And the hassles associated with the race would be compounded without the Monday holiday to provide time to clean up and reopen the streets downtown.
Nonetheless, even before this year's race was run, City Hall was deep into negotiations with IndyCar, Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the Baltimore Convention Center to find alternatives for the next two years.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake was such a strong champion of the initial Grand Prix, and she has worked so hard to keep it going in the subsequent years, that it almost feels as if it is a city-sponsored event. But it's not. It is a (theoretically) for-profit enterprise that we allow to take over a significant chunk of downtown every summer. We need a clear-eyed assessment of whether the race's economic impact — smaller than the first Grand Prix boosters promised but still substantial — is worth the indisputable damage to other sectors of the city.
We support the idea that major events downtown inject new life into Baltimore, and given the city's investment in street repairs and other work to make the Grand Prix possible, we certainly have every reason to root for it to succeed. But we cannot take it on faith that the race remains a good idea for 2014 and 2015, and neither should the mayor.