Operation Santa Claus, the annual toy drive that attracted thousands of motorcyclists armed with stuffed animals, food, cash and other goodies to Baltimore for needy children, has been canceled for this year.
Fund-raising for the rally was already far behind. But the fatal blow, organizers said last night, was a decision by Baltimore to charge -- for the first time -- a high fee for the use of city services needed to pull off the event. Last year, more than 80,000 cyclists attended the event at Fort Smallwood Park in Anne Arundel County.
"It's like cutting a part of my heart out," said Robert A. Ritter, who founded the toy run 11 years ago. "It's hard, you know. The original concept was to let the public know that motorcyclists are real people, good people who believe in helping society. But the bottom line was the kids. We help 10,000 children a year and to know that these kids possibly won't see anything for Christmas, that's hard to chew."
The toy run benefited the Salvation Army, the University of Maryland Medical Center's Pediatric Department, a city summer jobs program and area Little Leagues.
Mr. Ritter said that the decision to cancel the event was made about one week ago after organizers realized they didn't have the money or the volunteers needed for the event, popular with cycle enthusiasts from all over the East Coast.
Even when fees were not levied by the city, it cost the committee $96,000 to stage last year's toy run.
"The same people have been working on our committee for the past several years and they're kind of in the burnout state and haven't been there this year to sell raffle tickets and help put it together," Mr. Ritter said. When the Operation Santa Claus committee learned that it would be charged for police overtime and other services provided free in the past, it decided it was too much to continue, he said.
"They didn't tell us how much it would be, but it wasn't going to be cheap," he said. "Last year's police overtime came to about $66,000. When we called to ask about it, they said everybody's being charged -- the [March of Dimes] Walk-A-Thon, the Fells Point festival -- nobody's exempt."