City fees force Walk-A-Thon to trudge off to Balto. Co. March of Dimes officials reluctant to lose city base

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.

Organizers say new city fees would gobble up much of the fund-raiser's expected profit if it were to remain in the city.

The decision by the March of Dimes to move the Walk-A-Thon to Baltimore County strips the city of an event that for the past 22 years brought together as many as 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," says 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 says 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 says. The March of Dimes is a nonprofit group that runs programs and provides grants to help prevent birth defects and infant mortality.

Ms. Blakeslee says the event's cost in Baltimore County would be about 10 percent of what organizers say the cost would be in the city.

News of the March of Dimes pullout angered city officials, who charge 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," says Mari Ross, an assistant to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Ms. Ross also says 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 say the March of Dimes was bent on taking the event out of Baltimore -- even before the city imposed new fees this month to cover the cost of services provided festivals, parades and other gatherings.

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

Council President Mary Pat Clarke says losing the March of Dimes walk is a bad sign for the city.

"This event is more important now than ever, symbolically as well as financially, and they are abandoning us," she says. "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 the 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 say no other groups have announced they are moving their events out of Baltimore because of increased fees, James A. Jones, chairman of the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, warns, "stand by." Mr. Jones says 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 says.

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.

In recent years, the Tour Du Pont cycling race and the Jewish Festival moved their events to more hospitable sites, citing a lack of enthusiasm on the city's part.

But on March 28, the city -- for the first time -- will play host to a walk to raise money to fight multiple sclerosis, Ms. Ross says.

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

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