City's economy a sure-fire winner

Weeklong party spurs millions in spending

May 19, 2006|By LORRAINE MIRABELLA | LORRAINE MIRABELLA,SUN REPORTER

The Renaissance Harborplace Hotel is booked. The manager at the Days Inn downtown can't talk because he's so "freaking busy" with all the check-ins. Obrycki's Crab House is bringing in extra help for one of the busiest nights of the year. And revelers at Power Plant Live are turning out each night to sip Black Eyed Susans and jam to free outdoor bands.

Whether or not Barbaro captures the second leg of the Triple Crown, Baltimore's tourism venues are betting on a big payoff from the 131st Preakness Stakes.

The citywide party brings out racing die-hards, college-age gawkers and corporate executives wooing wealthy clients, among others. Last year, more than 223,000 visitors generated $22.5 million in spending and economic impact leading up to and on the day of the race, according to state economic development statistics.

This year, with a week of events such as Inner Harbor fireworks, free outdoor concerts at Power Plant Live, balloon launches from Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County and a parade on the city's west side, the visitor count could rise to a quarter of a million, officials say.

"Preakness is the Super Bowl of Baltimore, isn't it?" said David Sadeghi, chief operating officer of Big Steaks Management, who expects business to increase as much as 20 percent this weekend at his company's four downtown restaurants and two nightclubs.

"Every year at this time, every one of our restaurants gets busier. There are more people in town and a lot of business people entertaining clients after the race."

Sadeghi has beefed up the staff that serves diners and parks cars. He has rearranged seating at tables and the timing of reservations so that larger groups can be handled. His bartenders at Babalu Grill have come up with their own version of the Black Eyed Susan for this week.

Three of his company's restaurants - Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Blue Sea Grill and Babalu Grill in Market Place - have also drawn business from the growing numbers of people who attend the annual three nights of free concerts at Power Plant Live, Sadeghi said.

Reed Cordish, a vice president of Cordish Co., operator of the entertainment complex in the Inner Harbor area, said about 6,000 people attended the concert Wednesday and that 20,000 were expected last night and tonight, twice the number who attended when the series started six years ago.

"It's a big deal now, and people come from far away and drive in for it," Cordish said.

At Obrycki's Crab House on Pratt Street in Fells Point, the Preakness rush began at midweek. The day of the race is always one of the busiest of the year, said owner Rob Cernak.

"There are always a lot of people in town, and when people come to town, they want crabs," Cernak said. "We get people who own horses, plus a lot of people come in who are well-marinated from sitting in the sun and drinking beer all day. Preakness night has its own little culture to go along with it."

Dalesio's of Little Italy has doubled its usual Saturday supply of food and alcohol in anticipation of the post-race crowd that typically arrives on Preakness night. Confirmed reservations are up 40 percent, said owner Paul Oliver. The Preakness ranks with New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day as top dining-out nights, he said.

"This is consistently as big as you get for the spring. It's a big to-do, and it's not just a one-day function anymore," Oliver said. "It's weeklong, with promotional stuff and parties and benefits."

Typically, hotels fill up. Hoteliers count on the event to market the city and its lodging and meeting accommodations to clients.

"The hotels usually do very well for Preakness," said Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "The hotels are usually full."

The Renaissance, which has been essentially booked up for several weeks except for last-minute cancellations, will host about a dozen meeting planners who will arrive tonight for a dinner, then be chauffeured to Pimlico for the race, said Meade Atkeson, the hotel's general manager.

"We think that this is probably one of the biggest symbolic happenings in Baltimore to show off," Atkeson said. "You not only have the city to show off, but you have a fun event you don't see everywhere."

The hotel sells out for big sporting events such as Orioles games against the Yankees and Red Sox, but "in terms of the same thing every year, Preakness may be the biggest regular date where most hotels will sell out," Atkeson said.

At the 250-room Days Inn Inner Harbor, across the street from the Baltimore Convention Center, general manager Dennis Dietz had no time to chat, what with guests arriving for the Preakness and Orioles-Red Sox games.

"I'd love to talk, but I can't," Dietz said. "We are so freaking busy because of the event and our arrivals."

Dennis Castleman, Maryland's assistant secretary of tourism, film and the arts, said he expects bigger crowds at pre-race events to boost economic impact above last year's $22.5 million.

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