Baltimore's Grand Prix comes with risks and rewards

The city invested nearly $7 million in the Grand Prix at a time of cutbacks in neighborhood services. It tied up downtown traffic before, during and after a long holiday weekend, less than two weeks before voters go to the polls for a mayoral election.

What could possibly go wrong?

The inaugural Grand Prix swept into Baltimore this weekend with much at stake for a city whose economy and image could both use a boost, and for its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has been the most visible proponent of the much-hyped event.

"It is a big gamble," former Mayor Kurt l. Schmoke said. "If something really bad happens, that could hurt her politically."

But Schmoke is among those who would say, essentially, no guts, no glory: The risks in turning over Baltimore's prime tourist area to a new-to-these-parts street race are immense, especially under the watchful eyes of more than 800 credentialed members of the media. But so too are the potential rewards — from the hope of full hotels, bars and restaurants to broadcasts showing spirited crowds cheering racecars as they speed around Baltimore's tourist showcases.

While the Grand Prix is far from the first high-profile event in Baltimore, which hosts the annual Preakness and has welcomed a baseball All-Star Game and multiple NCAA lacrosse championships, the race allows the gritty city of "The Wire" fame to present a different side of itself to the world.

"Just think of all the TV programs that people pay to come to their cities for that one beauty shot," said Sandy Hillman, the one-time city promotions chief who now runs her own public relations firm. "With this, clearly, with it at the Inner Harbor, you'll get a sense of this exciting part of the city. It'll make us look younger, more energetic, vital and more fun.

"Cities have to do new things. You have to keep yourself out there," said Hillman, whose clients include the government of Singapore, which has its own Grand Prix. "You're going to get a lot of press for this. You're going to get a lot of people in town."

Here on the homefront, whether the event comes off like a charm or is marred by glitches or some unforeseen disaster, it likely will remain fresh in the minds of residents when they go to the polls Sept. 13 to choose between Rawlings-Blake or one of her Democratic primary challengers, who have been hammering her on the issue of whether the benefits of the event will outweigh its costs.

Baltimoreans are coming off several years of cutbacks, including closures of neighborhood fire stations and rec centers and shorter hours at city pools. The outlay of millions of dollars for the Grand Prix, an event catering largely to out-of-towners who will flock to the Inner Harbor, plays into the long-simmering resentment among some city residents that government leaders continually focus resources and attention on the downtown area at the expense of the neighborhoods.

Perhaps with a nod to this, Rawlings-Blake went to a northwestern neighborhood Friday to point out that 90 percent of the city streets that were resurfaced this year were not downtown.

Sports economist Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has long argued that public subsidies for sporting events like the Grand Prix rarely pay back the investment. Indeed, the city has said it does not expect to turn a profit in the first of the five years that it has agreed to host the race.

"The numbers we have been told are way too big," Coates said of projections that the race could generate $70 million in economic impact. Many of the extra jobs that promoters say will come with staging such an event turn out to be temporary or low-paying, he said, such as workers hired to set up and dismantle grandstands or waitresses getting more hours for several days.

And if promoters tend to overstate the returns, Coates said, public officials tend to understate the costs. The millions of dollars the city agreed to spend on roadwork and infrastructure "isn't the entire cost" to taxpayers, failing to account for such expenses as extra police and cleanup, Coates said. (Rawlings-Blake announced Friday that the roadwork cost $6.5 million, or $1.19 million less than projected. A spokesman said much if not all of the cost of providing extra city staff and services for the event will be reimbursed by racing promoters.)

Critics such as Coates further argue that focus on a single, fleeting event diverts attention from more permanent needs in the city.

"What else could they have done with that money?" Coates asks. "Is this producing the most benefit we could get?"

Coates, though, will say the bottom line is not the only factor in deciding whether to host an event like the Grand Prix. There are incalculable benefits, those "priceless" MasterCard-commercial memories that become a part of the city's culture.

Even irritations such as traffic delays tend to become part of the "community camaraderie" that develops when a city puts on an extravaganza, Hillman said.

"This reminds me of when we started City Fair in '71," she said of the festival started during Mayor William Donald Schaefer's administration to help the city recover from the devastating 1968 riots. "Everyone complained, everyone questioned it, and yet it evolved into something of enormous pride."

In its first year, the Grand Prix looms as a big unknown. Nearby neighborhoods and businesses wonder whether they'll be inconvenienced by it or will benefit from the tens of thousands of people it attracts to the city.

Unlike other events that have been held in Baltimore, the Grand Prix is a more sprawling festival, with a 2-mile racecourse that starts at the Convention Center on Pratt street, takes a hairpin loop on Light Street and heads to and around Camden Yards before returning to Pratt.

Grandstands and fencing have been erected along the route, creating something of an impenetrable Grand Prix zone within downtown. With party tents, concessions, concerts and other attractions along the course and within its perimeter, how much of a spillover effect the Grand Prix would have on the rest of the city remains to be seen.

"We don't know what to expect since this is the inaugural year," said Ryan Hada, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "It'll be interesting to see if it works for the city and the residents. I'm certainly not anti. I think it's an exciting event for people, but we'll have to see the benefits and the costs."

While weekday commuters have had to navigate around the Grand Prix setup, now weekend routines are facing disruption. Some churches will be offering fewer services and others are expecting more sparsely populated pews as parishioners decide not to fight the traffic.

That other Sunday ritual, the downtown farmers' market under the Jones Falls Expressway, will go on, though several vendors aren't sure what to expect.

"It's just too unpredictable for me," said Barbie Maniscalco, who normally sells bread and pastries from Uptown Bakers at the market but plans to skip Sunday. "I have to draw the line somewhere."

Usually, she gets up at 4 in the morning to drive from her home in Anne Arundel County to pick up the baked goods from Uptown's facility in Hyattsville so that she can start setting up around 6:30 a.m. under the expressway. Doing all that when she isn't sure if customers will take the trouble to get to the market, and whether she'd be able to make her way home, just seemed too risky, Maniscalco said.

"But who knows, I could be missing the boat," she added, noting that there might be a lot of extra foot traffic to the market from out-of-towners.

Those who have benefited from the city's decision to host the race say it provides a needed shot in the arm during the economic downturn.

"The industry has been totally decimated by the recession," said Pierce Flanigan, whose Baltimore-based company, P. Flanigan, was awarded a $4.8 million construction contract for the race. "There is no question it put people to work."

Restaurateur and caterer Eddie Dopkin agreed that "the race absolutely is bringing in dollars that wouldn't have been here" on what is traditionally a slow weekend. His Classic Caterers, which will feed racegoers in party tents at the Inner Harbor and near the Baltimore Convention Center, will bring in about 25 extra workers for the weekend.

Promoters and city officials are hoping for a lively and glitch-free weekend, with traffic among the main concerns.

That was Schmoke's major anxiety during the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, one of the higher-profile events during his administration. For all of its subsequent success, the stadium initially came with its own risks, he said. Launched by Schaefer but opened under Schmoke, the park's location downtown was groundbreaking at a time when most stadiums were in the suburbs.

"I could see the headlines," Schmoke recalled, "'Schaefer's Stadium, Schmoke's Traffic Jam.'"

Now it is Rawlings-Blake who has to worry about pulling off a major event under great scrutiny.

"Let's say the race is panned in the international sports community," Schmoke said. "But it would have to be something pretty bad — if all the cars had to drive at 50 miles per hour. It would make the city a laughingstock."

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, agreed that it would take a major disaster, "an apocalypse," for Rawlings-Blake to be seriously harmed by her support of the race. And even then, he said, any lost votes likely would be split among her many challengers.

Her opponents have pounced on the race as a possible wedge issue. In recent candidate forums, they have cast aspersions on the event and, by extension, on the mayor who has been pushing for it.

"I don't believe it's going to bring in all the money they say it's going to bring in," Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. said at a candidates forum last week, predicting "a failure" for the event. "I don't believe all the hotels are full."

Former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III said he "would have done more due diligence" than Rawlings-Blake did before signing a five-year commitment to the race. State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh said the road improvement funds should have been spent elsewhere in the city. And Otis F. Rolley slammed the event as a poor substitute for an economic development plan.

"We have to be smart about what we invest our resources in," the former Baltimore planning director said.

Staging a successful Grand Prix could help pad Baltimore's resume as a host city for other major events, according to Dan Knise, who headed the unsuccessful Baltimore-Washington bid for the 2012 Olympics.

"You would have loved to have had a track record of running a major event," like the Grand Prix, said Knise, now president and CEO of Ames & Gough, an insurance brokerage and consulting firm. "Obviously, it helps to have more experience. It tends to build on itself."

Aris Melisseratos, a former Maryland secretary of economic development, sees the Grand Prix as "completing our card" and adding to the area's other sporting and cultural events.

"You need these kinds of things that the city can rally people around," he said.

"Obviously there are risks," Melisseratos said. "But it was the right risk to assume. This could be another Preakness."