Grand Prix group misses tree-planting deadlines

Grand Prix group misses tree-planting deadlines
More than a dozen empty tree planters rest along Pratt Street in front of the federal courthouse. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

Add another problem to the mounting woes for the financially troubled organizers of Baltimore's inaugural Grand Prix auto race — the company has missed all its deadlines for planting trees downtown to make up for those cut down for the Labor Day weekend event.

Not one of the 198 trees promised by Baltimore Racing Development has been planted, even though it had pledged to get them all in by late last week, according to Beth Strommen, director of the city's office of sustainability. If the company doesn't come through soon, she said, the city will have to take steps to put the trees in itself next spring, most likely at a cost to taxpayers of up to $100,000.

"It's kind of a bummer," Strommen acknowledged Thursday, saying she's heard nothing from the company since helping it several weeks ago draw up a request for bids to replace the trees it had removed. Strommen had labored for months before the race to see that in return for the controversial decision to take out some trees, many more would get planted afterward.

Pete Collier, chief operating officer for the race developer — which faces lawsuits over unpaid bills — did not return calls or an email seeking information on when, or whether, the company plans to plant the trees. Jay Davidson, who stepped down recently as chief executive officer, left a voicemail message saying Collier was the one to ask about the trees.

A week ago, even as the company was about to miss its last tree-planting deadline, Davidson had emailed The Baltimore Sun an assurance that its financial straits "shouldn't have an impact on this." Strommen also contended last week that "as far as I know, everything is on track right now." And Collier had pledged that the company would get the trees planted and said it would be done "hopefully sooner, rather than later."

But Strommen said Thursday she has no idea if the company has awarded a contract to plant trees, and if so, when it will start. She said she's been unable to get any response to her inquiries.

The company has missed a series of payments to vendors and lenders, prompting a half-dozen lawsuits claiming unpaid debts of nearly $1.6 million. The Maryland Stadium Authority drew $470,000 from the race group's escrow account for a missed loan payment. And Baltimore officials this week threatened to cancel a deal to host the Grand Prix for another four years, because the city is owed more than $1.5 million in unpaid taxes and reimbursements for police, fire and other services provided during the event.

The removal of dozens of trees downtown to make way for grandstands and other race course features sparked a furor in the weeks running up to the three-day event. More than 4,000 people signed an online protest, and the petition's author even filed a lawsuit against the city, accusing it of violating its own tree-protection law.

The legal action was promptly tossed out of court, but the number of trees targeted for removal shrank from 50 to just 31 on city streets, plus a few dozen others on private or state-owned stadium property. And as the tempest played out, city officials hastily finalized a lengthy "memorandum of understanding" with Baltimore Racing Development to more than make up for the race-related defoliation.

In it, the company promised to put 59 new trees along the race course around the Inner Harbor and to plant an additional 139 trees elsewhere downtown in sidewalk openings now lacking trees. Some were supposed to go in the day after the race bleachers were removed, others before Sept. 30 and the rest by last Friday — 60 days after the event. Race organizers even went beyond the written agreement, vowing to pay for 5,000 more saplings that the city could plant wherever it wanted.

To date, only the large concrete planters that were to be placed along the West Pratt Street side of the Garmatz federal court building, where 13 trees were removed, have been installed. But the planters contain no trees, according to Gina Gilliam, spokeswoman for the U.S. General Services Administration, which manages the building.

David Troy, a Bolton Hill software developer who led the tree protest, said he was not surprised by the company's failure to make good on its promises. He had called for the city to make Baltimore Racing Development post a financial guarantee for planting the trees. City officials declined to do so, noting that the race developer already had provided a $750,000 bond for a variety of other work and services the city was providing.

"The taxpayers are going to have to pay for it," Troy predicted, "which is exactly what I was trying to prevent from happening."

Strommen said she still hopes the company might right itself soon and fulfill the tree-planting agreement, because the race "did do well ... the event proved it can work." The three-day festival sold 110,000 tickets and garnered national TV attention, plus praise from Indy car drivers and their teams.

"We're sort of frozen here in time until these key things are worked out," Strommen said.

The agreement provides that the race developer will pay $500 for every tree it doesn't plant or maintain, though it's not clear how enforceable that is amid the company's financial problems.

"This shows the real incompetence of folks at City Hall," said Troy, whose criticisms have been dismissed by city officials as politically motivated. He backed Otis Rolley's unsuccessful bid to unseat Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in this year's primary election. "They didn't do due diligence, and we're all left holding the bag."

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Inc., which promotes business and tourism in the city's commercial core, said he's just as anxious to revive the barren spots left in the downtown landscape where trees and vegetation once grew.

"We were hopeful," he said. "But now, we'll just wait and see."