City's charm put to the test? Casting us into the national spotlight, are miscues like last week's Preakness power outage giving us a black eye?

May 24, 1998|By Carl Schoettler

When the lights went out at Pimlico Race Course during the Preakness, Baltimore looked as klutzy as a runner who breaks his toe in the kitchen just before a major marathon.

It was ridiculous and it hurt.

"Bad, bad publicity," says William Donald Schaefer, the promotion-minded former mayor and governor, sounding like an

elder statesman chastising the new generation.

A record 91,000 crowd, a record 92 degrees, a busted transformer, the lights go out, the air-conditioning shuts down, the betting machines don't work. You can't get a bet down on what turns out to be a great horse race.

"A black eye for the city," he says. "It's bad enough the Orioles are losing."

Schaefer divides the blame more or less evenly between Pimlico and City Hall.

"It should have been incumbent on Pimlico and the city to be prepared," he says. "It's the big premier day that gives Maryland racing national exposure. This was the biggest one and it was a flop."

So can a city that's considering joining Washington in a bid for the Olympic games put on a really big show? Well, sure. There were 122 Preaknesses before the lights went out this year.

"We used to have great Preaknesses," says Schaefer, recalling without undue modesty those days when he was mayor.

He thinks the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke doesn't really care about promotion. And it is true that Schmoke has never donned 1890s swim garb to jump into the seal pool at the National Aquarium.

But even advertising executive Sandy Hillman, who cut her promotional teeth on the city fairs and ethnic festivals of the early days of Schaeferism, thinks the city's pretty good at putting on big events.

Just two weeks before the Preakness, Baltimore played host to the high-tone, high-tech, upscale Whitbread round-the-world sailors with the elan of James Bond introducing a new girl friend to Americans at the bar of the Monte Carlo Yacht Club.

"It was flawless execution," says Hillman, a partner in the advertising and PR agency Trahan, Burden & Charles, which represented two of the boats. "The city and state did a beautiful job.

"Look at the European press," she says. "We got a lot of press and we looked like a first-rank American city."

She didn't even think the Preakness outage was the giant fiasco Schaefer saw.

"It was so civilized," she says. She passed through the clubhouse after the lights went out. "People weren't yelling and screaming. There was none of that."

The uncivilized people yelling and screaming were all out in the infield anyway and unaffected by the power outage. They could even make bets.

'Big deal'

"I think that Pimlico was an anomaly," Hillman says, "a big deal for insiders but not outside the racing industry."

Some racing insiders, notably a couple of writers from Kentucky, do argue the Preakness ought to be raced somewhere else. Maybe North Dakota.

"Pimlico long has been a track held together with paper clips and Velcro," wrote a guy from Louisville. "It has all the charm of an industrial park. I'm not sure they've painted the place since Citation was a yearling. I'd vote for moving the second leg of the Triple Crown to another location. The Floyd County Fair would be an improvement."

Pretty fair invective but not what Baltimore boosters want to hear. Floyd County, by the way, is far out in the backwoods of southeast Kentucky.

Hillman notes that the Preakness is mostly private enterprise.

"Most events are managed by city crews," she says. "The public works guys and the sanitation crews are as good as anybody in the country in supporting public events. They're so adept they can handle any situation."

She ticks off a whole generation of big time public events that went off famously: from the tall ship celebrations, city fairs and Sunny Sundays to the openings of Harborplace, the aquarium, Pier 6 and the Convention Center.

"Events are wonderful signature pieces for a city," Hillman says. "I think the media impression is that we are a good urban events producer."

She offers as proof the cover story on this month's USAIR magazine, which touts Baltimore as "a great tourist destination."

"People come here when we produce a major event," she says, "and they go home happy."

That seems to be what happened when the really high-powered International Development Research Council held its World Congress here during Preakness Week.

The 1,500 members of the IDRC handle real estate transactions - site selection, property acquisition, facility development and expansion - for powerhouse Fortune 500 corporations. Their president, for example, is Bruce Russell, a director and vice president for real estate at Eastman Kodak. These are men and women you want to like your town.

And they did, says Ioanna Morfessis, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Alliance. Like the Whitbread yachtsmen, the corporate real estate executives praised Baltimore's "excellent" hospitality.

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