Vowing that they have learned their lesson, organizers of the 1996 Preakness Celebration today will unveil a scaled-back version of the festival preceding the fabled thoroughbred race, cutting the budget by more than half and dropping two big events that left last year's celebration almost $1 million in debt.
"We're returning to a schedule of proven crowd-pleasers," said Terry Romanoli, a Preakness Celebration staffer who is acting as the week-long event's executive director. "There were a couple of new events last year that are not being repeated."
Those events created most of the problems that left the nonprofit company that runs the celebration with unpaid bills and bounced checks all over Baltimore. In particular, a two-night Rash Field concert series -- featuring such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Little Feat and Dr. John -- drew only about 1,600 spectators, leaving debts that included $30,000 for a JumboTron scoreboard-style monitor to make the performers visible to spectators in distant seats.
The organizers also dropped the Preakness Eve Bash that last year was billed as a funky, MTV-style nightclub party for "young progressives," featuring Deborah Harry, whose claim to fame dates to her stint as lead singer for the band Blondie in the 1970s.
Organizers left in the schedule such events as the May 11 Preakness Parade through downtown, the May 10 "Infield Party on Water Street," a 5-kilometer run around the Inner Harbor and along Key Highway, a hobby horse race for kids called the Pee Wee Preakness and the May 11 Oregon Ridge Park concert featuring country music and a visit by corporate-sponsored hot air balloons.
This year's Preakness Celebration budget will be $300,000, well below the $775,000 budgeted last year. This year's celebration runs from May 10 through May 15. The Preakness Stakes will be run May 18.
"We want to generate a smile," said Bryan Stark, an account executive at the Reeves Agency, a Baltimore advertising firm that represents the Preakness Celebration. "Despite some of the brouhaha from last year, people are going to come down because the events are fun."
The organizers also hope to raise cash to pay off some of the $999,285 in debts left over from last year's celebration.
Maryland Preakness Celebration Inc. did pay nearly $750,000 of its bills, but among its biggest debts were $143,750 to WBAL-TV for advertising and $30,000 to the Maryland Special Olympics to cover a donation pledge that wasn't honored.
Members of the company's board have blamed former executive director Donna Leonard for vastly overspending her budget in a bid to put the pre-Preakness event on a par with the much bigger, better-known festivities preceding each year's Kentucky Derby in Louisville.
Maryland Preakness Celebration Inc. is a separate entity from the race around which its events are scheduled.
Maryland's attorney general examined Ms. Leonard's behavior, but declined to bring criminal charges. Ms. Leonard's attorney has said that the fault lies at least partly with the board for failing to supervise Ms. Leonard more closely.
The celebration's organizers would not discuss yesterday the status of their attempt to pay off creditors.
Board of Directors Co-Chairman Barry F. Scher, an executive at Giant Food Inc., said he would reserve comment until a news conference this morning at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel.
But executives at WBAL said little progress has been made in unraveling the biggest debt from last year's festival.
"We've had conversations with them about settlement of the debt, but we have yet to come to any agreement at all about advertisements for 1996," said WBAL Vice President and General Manager Phil Stolz. "The alternatives presented to us so far have been unacceptable."
Pub Date: 4/03/96