Pumping up the Preakness

May 16, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Donna Leonard, the new executive director of Maryland Preakness Celebration Inc., grew up knowing the Preakness from a peculiarly Baltimore point of view: from the perspective of the race track's infield.

"I was a big infield girl," she says. "When I was in college, that was the only place to be. Preakness meant a big party. Never saw the race, didn't care to."

The vision of the 34-year-old White Marsh native has broadened considerably. Charged with expanding the series of events leading up to the race and with generating the level of excitement that attends the Kentucky Derby, Ms. Leonard barely has time to visit her home in Fells Point, much less sample the entertainment she has planned.

Petite and trim with a low-maintenance haircut, Ms. Leonard has a burnished appearance and the easy manner of someone used to scheduling back-to-back meetings with the Boy Scouts and corporate vice presidents. One colleague describes her as "self-effacing," another quips that "she hasn't slept since February." (She started the job last August.)

Organizers have estimated that the 6-year-old celebration generates about $20 million each year for the state and attracts at least 500,000 visitors. In the effort to improve those statistics, Ms. Leon- ard has already added such new events as an opening ceremony with a mascot race; a multicultural outdoor festival of foods and crafts; a celebration at Sandy Point State Park with a hot air balloon race; a festival at the zoo for children; and a Preakness Eve concert of "oldies" acts.

She also has increased the celebration's national sponsorship, thanks to knowledge she gained as marketing director for Advantage International, one of the world's largest sports events marketing firms. During the six years Ms. Leonard worked for AI, she promoted international events such as the Ladies Professional Golf Association championship and U.S. Open and secured sponsors for them.

She also learned to help sponsors become smarter shoppers. For this Preakness Celebration, for instance, she suggested that longtime supporter Amoco finance a new laser festival at Camden Yards after the May 18 Red Sox game -- a decision that allows the corporation to entertain its dealers -- rather than continue to fund the Inner Harbor fireworks display.

A new energy

"Donna has brought an outside eye and provided the whole enterprise with new energy," says Mark Wasserman, secretary of Maryland's Department of Economic and Employment Development. "While everyone has always understood that the Preakness is a one-of-a-kind event, we've never been able to completely harness it or put it on the track."

"She knows how to get people excited, therefore involved, whether it's a board assignment or working with an organization putting on one of the events," says Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs for Giant Food and co-president of the Preakness Celebration board.

Preakness Celebration maintains a small office in the World Trade Center and a small staff -- Ms. Leonard and her assistant, Terry Romanoli, are the first and only full-time employees.

At the moment, the nonprofit celebration has one week of events and an annual budget of $1 million. The Derby, with two weeks of events, has a budget she estimates as four times larger -- plus a staff of 25.

Ms. Leonard is eager to narrow the gap.

"I've been told I'm a workaholic," she says.

"I'll do whatever it takes to make this thing a success. That's more important than anything else to me right now, for good or bad. And I know it's not completely for good. My home is here in the office. . . . The nature of the events business is to pitch in and do what you have to do to get it done."

And to grit your teeth against popular misconceptions.

"A lot of people who don't know this business will say, 'You mean it takes a year to do this?' or they'll say 'Do you leave on May 22 and go on vacation for a couple of months?' Every time someone asks me those questions I have to control myself. Right now, we're planning for '95 and '96 -- and we're not even through '94!"

Tangible success

The difficulties of working in the nonprofit events biz -- the daily mini-crises, the problems with volunteers, the maintenance of sponsors -- are legion.

And the rewards?

"I'll know a month from now," she says.

"I'm anticipating the best part will be the success we're going to have. Literally every day I can see progress. People call from all over the place wanting to know what they can do and how they can get involved.

"Having the Preakness Stakes here is something to be incredibly proud of. It's the one time every year when the world watches Maryland and Baltimore and we have this chance to shine.

"I feel passionate about this celebration because I know what it can become. And we're working very hard, 24 hours a day, explaining to everyone else why they should feel this way, too."

TODAY'S EVENTS

The Fantasy Golf Challenge Preakness Celebrity Pro-Am, Crofton Country Club, Crofton. National celebrities and athletes tee off at 9 a.m. with national professionals, local amateurs, Preakness Celebration guests, including former Orioles Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell, and members of the cast of "Homicide." Sponsored by WBAL radio and American Airlines. Admission is $10 for spectators, $400 for single golfers, $1,500 for foursomes.

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