Walk-A-Thon takes a hike March of Dimes says city fees force shift to Baltimore County

January 27, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Baltimore's March of Dimes Walk-A-Thon, once one of the biggest events of its kind in the nation, is moving to the suburbs because of new city fees that walk organizers say would gobble up much of the fund-raiser's expected profit.

The decision by the March of Dimes to move the Walk-A-Thon out of Baltimore strips the city of an event that for the past 22 years brought together as many 30,000 people and was hailed as one of the most successful Walk-A-Thons in the country.

"We wanted to continue to have the march in Baltimore," said Cassandra S. Blakeslee, director of communications for the March of Dimes. "But it would cost us an awful lot of money to do so."

She said that it would cost the March of Dimes an estimated $100,000 -- one-fifth of the event's expected proceeds -- to pay the city for the police, sanitation and traffic-control services required for the Walk-A-Thon.

"We just can't have that much money taken from our programs," she said. The March of Dimes is a nonprofit group that runs programs and provides grants to help prevent birth defects and reduce infant mortality.

News of the March of Dimes pullout angered city officials, who charged that the group is wildly overstating the projected cost of city services for the event.

"What they are talking about is not even close to what the event would cost them," said Mari Ross, an assistant to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Ms. Ross also said that the March of Dimes never filed a formal application for the Walk-A-Thon with the city and, consequently, had no way to calculate how much it would be charged. Ms. Ross and other city officials said the March of Dimes was bent on taking the event out of Baltimore -- even before the city this month imposed new fees to cover the cost of services it provides for festivals, parades and other gatherings.

"They indicated to us that they wanted to move the march around," Ms. Ross said, adding that half the Walk-A-Thon route was in Baltimore County last year.

Council President Mary Pat Clarke said losing the popular March of Dimes walk is an ominous sign for the city.

"This event is more important now than ever, symbolically as well as financially, and they are abandoning us," she said. "This is a loss to us, but it is a loss we didn't deserve."

In 1990, at least a dozen Walk-A-Thon participants suffered minor injuries when they were assaulted by a group of teen-age boys in Northeast Baltimore. March of Dimes officials said that incident had nothing to do with their recent decision.

The move by the March of Dimes could be a sign of things to come, some festival organizers fear. They say the new fees could make it impossible for many groups to support the hundreds of street festivals, block parties, parades and marches that are a hallmark of Baltimore.

While city officials said no other groups have announced they are moving their events out of Baltimore as a result of the new fees, James A. Jones, chairman of the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, warned, "stand by." Mr. Jones said parade officials are still uncertain about how much the city will charge them for the March 14 event. If the bill is too high, future St. Patrick's Day parades may be moved, he said.

In recent years, the Tour Du Pont cycling race and the Jewish Festival were moved to more hospitable sites, citing a lack of enthusiasm on the city's part. But city officials say other events are moving to Baltimore. On March 28, the city -- for the first time -- will play host to a walk to raise money to fight multiple sclerosis, Ms. Ross said.

The March of Dimes Walk-A-Thon this year will begin at White Marsh Mall and wind its way to Essex Community College, before returning to the mall. The 15-mile walk is set for April 25, and will be held simultaneously with Walk-A-Thons in Harford, Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties.

Ms. Blakeslee said the event's cost in Baltimore County would be about 10 percent of what organizers say the cost would be in the city. The new fees were imposed after Mr. Schmoke said the city can no longer afford to provide free services.

"I know it is not the mayor's intention to drive activities like these out of the city," Ms. Clarke said. "But if he realizes that the fees are having that effect, we have a better chance of reversing the policy."

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