Cheaper, homier Preakness festival means no parade

May 06, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

This year's Preakness Celebration will cost less and have more of a home-grown look, organizers say. But the event that may have attracted the most community involvement -- the Preakness Parade -- has been canceled.

The 10-day festival, which starts tomorrow, lost more than $35,000 last year and has struggled to attract sponsors for costlier events.

In the place of the parade and other events, such as a celebrity tennis tournament, the celebration will concentrate on activities with a greater "community" orientation,which are also easier on the budget. The annual Highlandtown Festival, for example, has been renamed the Preakness Fun Festival.

"I don't want anyone to think we're doing less. We're just doing more community stuff. . . . We're trying to reach out for less expensive events," said Sandra Cuneo, the outgoing executive director of Preakness Celebration.

The festival was formed in 1988 to capitalize on the attention the horse race brought the state. It was modeled on, but in many respects never has lived up to, the Kentucky Derby Festival that has been staged annually in Louisville, Ky., since 1956 and now runs two weeks.

The nonprofit Maryland Preakness Celebration Inc. managed to break even or nearly even every year since its founding until 1992, when it lost $35,298. More than $500,000, however, was raised for charities last year at Preakness festival events.

Ms. Cuneo said staffing has been cut and the organization aggressively has sought donations of time and services to make up for a lack of corporate and government aid. Its nearly $1 million budget has been pared, though Ms. Cuneo said she did not know by how much.

"I don't think you can do it for much less than it is being done for this year," said Ms. Cuneo, who recently left the $66,000 Preakness job to work for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's Washington office.

Although the lingering economic downturn robbed the event of some business sponsors, a drop in government grants was the most significant funding problem, she said. Last year, the state gave $25,000 and Baltimore gave $75,000. That was down from combined grants of $125,000 the year before and $225,000 in 1990.

The parade cost $103,701 last year and made $87,158 in sponsor revenue, according to the organization's tax returns. Even though it was embroiled in charges of racism last year, the parade was canceled this year simply because it could not attract a sponsor, said Peter Stanton, Preakness Celebration spokesman.

The group will try next year to bring back the parade, which has been run every year since 1972.

Last year's organizers, saying they needed to speed the parade to fit it into a television broadcast, initially did not invite many longtime participants, including several predominantly black marching bands. The idea ran into stiff opposition, and the bands appealed to the mayor and City Council president and eventually won back a place in the parade.

Margaret Robertson, a local band leader who led the fight to stay in the parade last year, said she thinks the controversy played a part in the decision to drop the parade this year.

"They may be in financial trouble, but I don't think that's the main reason. I think it's because of last year's disagreement," said Ms. Robertson, of the New Edition Marching Band.

"It's heartbreaking for the children. The Preakness Parade is the first event of the season, it's our start-off time, our coming-out time. Some of the children are very angry," she said. Her band has 300 mostly black, inner-city members, she said.

The parade was in danger of not being run last year, also. The Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness, stepped in at the last moment as a sponsor. But not this year.

"It was just too costly for us," said Joe De Francis, president of the Jockey Club. "It had been a fun event, and I don't think it is necessarily gone forever."

Mr. De Francis, who also sits on the board of Preakness Celebration, said he is not concerned about the festival's budget trimming this year.

"The board's interest is in putting on a festival that involves as much of the community as possible," he said.

Although the Jockey Club supports the Preakness Celebration, he said the festival probably hurts more than helps the track. Some fans skip races to go to festival events, he said. And the track could use the resources it devotes to the festival for more effective promotions, he said.

"To Pimlico, it's not important at all -- it doesn't put a dime in our pocket," Mr. De Francis said.

"It's something we are involved with primarily out of a sense of community involvement."

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