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Grand Prix impact felt beyond racetrack

The whine of Grand Prix's race cars carried across the Inner Harbor this weekend as Roland Keh stood on the steps of his Little Italy restaurant, surveying a deserted street.

"As you can see, not a normal Saturday," said Keh, co-owner of Amiccis. "The foot traffic is not here."

The first year IndyCar racing came to downtown Baltimore, Little Italy restaurants banded together to put tables on the sidewalks and welcome fans. By the third year, Keh and his compatriots abandoned special plans, hopeful but not optimistic that patrons would show up.

While the three-day festival of speed brings more than 100,000 people to the Inner Harbor, business owners far from the race track report lackluster sales as Grand Prix of Baltimore patrons stay close to the track and non-race visitors shy away. Like several other business owners in Little Italy, Fells Point and Harbor East, Keh blamed the dismal business weekend on the misconception that the Grand Prix shuts down Baltimore.

"People don't want to contend with traffic," he said. "Labor Day weekend, for us, used to be a busy weekend. Families used to come down, visit the Inner Harbor for one last hurrah of summer. That's taken a little bit nose dive for us."

The warnings from signs above I-83 about traffic "downtown" seemed misplaced when the Barbosa family from Parkville arrived for a dinner reservation in Little Italy 20 minutes early and rolled easily into a parking spot.

"It looks like a ghost town," Sharon Barbosa said. Her 5-year-old son Alessandro chimed in, gesturing to the near empty streets. "No, I'm serious," he said. "It does look like a real ghost town."

A block away, a team of eight valet workers lounged on a street corner, listless and bored. On a slow night, they park about 50 cars. Friday night, they parked 32.

Nicholas Johnson loves the Grand Prix for raising the city's visibility, but said it has been awful for his Su Casa furniture store in Fells Point. Sales during the weekend of race are down 70 percent compared to other summer weekends, he said.

"Every news report leading up to the race says that traffic downtown is a mess," Johnson said. "Really, there is zero impact to Fells Point."

Customers who aren't city dwellers may miss the distinction that Fells, Federal Hill, Little Italy, Canton and Harbor East aren't considered "downtown," he said.

"It's actually a better weekend to go to those places, but everyone's been warned all week not to go downtown," he said.

Beth Hawks of Zelda Zen on Thames Street says her sales are down by 90 percent, leading her to describe race weekend as "horrible, abysmal, terrible. The [expletive] worst thing that's ever happened to the city."

Tom Mayer, the general manager of the Grand Prix of Baltimore, acknowledged that Federal Hill was the most affected neighborhood, "landlocked" by the race's concrete barriers. But he said organizers have tried to limit adverse effects on Fed Hill businesses by ending concerts at 7:30 p.m. instead of 9:30 p.m. with the intention of helping local restaurants capture dinner customers.

"We're trying to push people out," he said.

A month ago, some Federal Hill businesses began using the Twitter hashtag "#embracetherace" as part of their campaign to convince patrons to come there. Brian McComas, president of the Federal Hill Hospitality Association, said the organization and Grand Prix officials came up with a "Cars on Cross" event that brought a dozen high-end cars to Cross Street and drew 600 people.

The outreach to Federal Hill, however, had little impact on the foot traffic in Fells, where David Horner's verdict on the weekend was: "Toes, fingers, thumbs down."

Horner, who has owned of After Midnight on Broadway Square for more than two decades, said his Labor Day revenue the past three years has been off by 50 percent, he said. By the cash register on Saturday evening, he had written a list of complaints he planned to email to city officials.

"There's signs on the highway telling people they can't get here," Horner said. "There are barriers preventing people from coming through the city."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.

Baltimore Grand Prix 2013 news from The Baltimore Sun

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