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A Baltimore face for Baltimore's race

For the third straight year, the drivers in the Grand Prix of Baltimore will flip the ignition switch in their racecars, fire up those fuel-injected, high-performance engines and renew their quest for the fastest way through the streets of downtown Baltimore. It is also, once again, the time for the annual round of questions surrounding the event that seem to permeate Baltimore City and the local community, as the green flag is about to drop. Questions with regard to the economic impact, the road closures, local sponsors, and more. For 2013, there is even the Mother of All Questions: "Is there a date on the calendar in the future when this event can even be held?"

These are questions that deserve answers, to be sure, but one can also ask, "Are these questions ever going to have answers that resolve the seeming temporal status of the Grand Prix of Baltimore?"

After a rocky beginning, new stewardship of the event has provided a solid foundation for the last 500 days or so. Outstanding debts have been resolved, taxes due to the city have been paid, and the professionals in local law enforcement and transportation have proved that they can manage an event of this magnitude as well, or better, as can any other city. Moreover, the two major racing sanctioning bodies that manage the on-track events have spoken complimentary and often about the excitement that they see in Baltimore, and with the fans, compared to other areas that are host to this type of event. Finally, according to Visit Baltimore, the occupancy percentage and room rates for local hotels have trended higher for race weekend when compared to the previous year, or for a nonrace weekend in September.

Yet, despite the apparent stabilization of the event, Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Korman's recent article highlighted certain city officials using words such as "frustrating" and "challenging" in reference to finding possible (and acceptable) dates on the calendar in 2014 and 2015. The current Labor Day weekend date for the Grand Prix has been pre-empted in those years by a college football game ('14) and an American Legion convention ('15).

For 2013, the leaders of Race On Baltimore, J.P Grant and Gregory O'Neil, as well as the affiliated support of Andretti Sports Marketing, have installed experienced and professional management; reduced the track build time to as few as 21 days; and secured a six-figure presenting sponsorship from a high-performance motorsports brand. Interest seems to be high among the sports enthusiast community, with ticket sales reportedly running at levels equal to or slightly above 2012. However, per Mr. Korman's reporting, one wonders — is there is no three-day window of availability in Baltimore during the 90-day period from early July to mid-September?

Perhaps the Mother of All Questions is better phrased as: "Does Baltimore want a major motorsports event?"

This is where local leadership (meaning Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Gov. Martin O'Malley, city and state economic develop and tourism officials, local business leaders, and ownership representatives from the Orioles and Ravens) needs to step forward. In particular, Mayor Rawlings-Blake needs to assert her political and personal powers of persuasion.

Is it more important for the city to have another football game, a convention — or, for that matter, a casino? Cities like Baltimore develop reputations, just as private enterprises develop brand images. In each of those cases, the ones that grow and thrive in a hyper-competitive, global economy are the ones that differentiate themselves from their peers. In business, it's termed "having meaningful differences instead of a better sameness." That "sameness" is having what your competitor has, just a little different, perhaps cheaper. Having "differences" is what consumers talk about, via word of mouth. After all, word-of-mouth promotion is often the most authentic, and effective, when it comes time to make a decision — whether it's a retail purchase, or (in the case of a city) influencing a decision to start or relocate a business to the area. Currently, that "better sameness" applies to Baltimore; our pitch is that we can host that convention, just with cheaper hotel rooms than some other city.

On the other hand, certain cities have those "meaningful differences." They offer what others won't or can't. For example, Long Beach, Calif., has demonstrated that a three-day motorsports event can generate close to $40 million in economic impact and provide a platform to tell a story about the community. Media will flock into the city and report out to the rest of the country, and the world, about the event and their experience with the host city.

Properly constructed, major sports events like a three-day Grand Prix come to town with a blank slate where local leaders can apply the "What's Baltimore about it" label. For example, there are approximately two miles of concrete barriers around the racing circuit. Portions of that will be covered with advertising and sponsor messaging; however, most of it will be blank. This is where city high school art students can get creative, with colorful expressions about their school or community. Imagine the pride or cheering from the students in West Baltimore, or Govans or Greemount, when the cars breeze past the mural from their school? The local STEM programs can shadow race team engineers to learn first-hand how their studies are applied in the working world.

However, none of this is possible without real leadership and vision from a public and private partnership that includes elected officials and leaders of our private sports enterprises. Those in that circle of influence need to grasp hands and take two big steps toward one another to help Baltimore grow its base of major sports events. For, with respect to the Grand Prix of Baltimore, perhaps the one and final Mother of All Questions should be directed at our leaders; "Are you a part of this community, or apart of this community?" It is more than the difference between a noun and an adverb.

Marty Conway is an adjunct professor of sports management at Georgetown University and a senior consultant for Way Forward Associates. You can follow him on Twitter @MartyConway.

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