How A Party Fizzled

July 09, 1995|By William F. Zorzi Jr. and Michael James | William F. Zorzi Jr. and Michael James,Sun Staff Writers

Woefully behind in ticket sales four days before a planned music extravaganza at the Inner Harbor, staffers at Maryland Preakness Celebration Inc. urged their boss to scale back the event.

Instead, executive director Donna Leonard ordered a $30,000, tractor-trailer-sized television screen to make the performers appear larger than life -- for a crowd that never materialized.

The episode was typical of how Ms. Leonard repeatedly ignored warnings as she pushed the nonprofit corporation deeply into debt by dramatically overspending its budget for this year's Preakness Week activities, according to Preakness Celebration board members, staff and creditors.

Compounding the corporation's fiscal plight was that money Ms. Leonard hoped would pour in from the week's events never did. The celebration was marked by poor planning, unrealistic expectations and plain bad luck, a review by The Sun suggests.

"The board approved the budget of $750,000, and she far exceeded it," said Barry F. Scher, co-chairman of the volunteer board of directors for the May 12-20 celebration, which included street festivals, a ball, a parade, a 5-kilometer footrace and a hot-air balloon launch.

"Why she didn't cancel events . . . when she saw what was happening, I don't know," Mr. Scher said.

Ms. Leonard's decisions -- and the lack of internal spending controls from the board of directors -- explain why the group is $1 million in debt, why scores of small businesses and individuals have been left unpaid and why the reputation of one of the state's premier attractions has been tarnished, The Sun's review found.

From interviews with dozens of people who dealt with Ms. Leonard, both supporters and detractors, a picture emerges of an ambitious young woman who was kept aloft by groundless optimism but had a faulty business sense.

By all accounts, the 35-year-oldBaltimore native worked tirelessly realize a dream of elevating the celebration surrounding Maryland's Preakness Stakes to the par of the highly successful festivities surrounding the Kentucky Derby in Louisville.

"Donna's a good person. She just lost her way . . . lost her focus at some point," said Diane B. Hock, president of Professionals on Request Ltd., an Ellicott City-based sports marketing agency, and a consultant on this year's Preakness Celebration.

"Sometimes your events don't go as planned. But when you have the bulk of the people around you saying, 'Please don't, please don't,' you don't do it anyway," Ms. Hock said.

Ms. Hock, who was hired by Ms. Leonard to assist in promoting events, is still owed $41,977 by the Preakness Celebration group -- including $16,000 her company paid out of pocket to cover expenses for a Preakness Eve Bash.

Ms. Hock is not alone. Preakness Celebration still owes at least $999,285 to more than 120 businesses, individuals and government offices, some of which were paid with checks that bounced or checks on which payment was stopped.

Legally, the debts are the responsibility of Preakness Celebration's board, made up of 27 business and civic leaders from around the state, including a representative of the Baltimore Sun. The board suspended Ms. Leonard from her $70,000-a-year job last month when it was besieged by calls and threats from angry, unpaid vendors.

At the time, the board also announced that it had referred the matter to the Maryland attorney general's office. The attorney general is awaiting further information from the board before deciding whether a state investigation is warranted.

Ms. Leonard referred all questions to her lawyer, who pointed a finger back at the board, saying that it pushed the notion of a bigger and better Preakness Celebration and that it did not help her succeed.

"When she was hired, she was given directives to make the Preakness Celebration a national event, and it was her perception that the goal was to mirror the Kentucky Derby Festival, which has a very active board with set criteria and set structure and set expectations," said Charles E. Rosolio, her attorney.

The financial trouble, he said, was "due in large part to the lack of support from the board and its failure to provide her with assistance in terms of staffing, in terms of obtaining corporate sponsors, and other areas where one would reasonably expect a board of this type to contribute."

The board, in fact, signed off on Ms. Leonard's plans to add several splashy new events to this year's celebration. But board members and others say it was her job as executive director to make them succeed -- or at least to pull the plug on doomed events before they left the organization nearly $1 million in debt.

'The head honcho'

Ms. Leonard, a former marketing director with Advantage International, a national sports event marketing firm in McLean, Va., came highly recommended when she answered an ad for the executive director's job at Preakness Celebration in 1993.

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