Preparing for a president-elect

Baltimore, state and federal agencies are scrambling to get ready for Obama's visit

January 16, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

With just one day to go before President-elect Barack Obama and roughly 150,000 onlookers converge on Baltimore, planners are scrambling to make sure the city and the site in front of City Hall are ready.

Yesterday, the U.S. Secret Service approved a street closure plan, Mayor Sheila Dixon asked residents to neaten their yards, Gov. Martin O'Malley urged people to take public transportation into the city, and the Maryland Transit Administration announced changes to 18 bus routes (details online at www.mtamaryland.com/Saturday_Diversions.cfm). State police will begin towing abandoned cars at midnight.

"It's pretty busy around here," said Secret Service Special Agent Darrin Blackford. His agency got five weeks to secure the event and oversee its planning, he said, compared with two years' worth of such preparations for political conventions. Among the concerns are keeping traffic moving, keeping the president-elect safe and keeping thousands of visitors frostbite-free - Saturday's high temperature is expected to be well below freezing.

Though we've known for weeks that Obama was stopping in Charm City on a train trip from Philadelphia to Washington, the official location wasn't announced until yesterday, setting off a flurry of last-minute announcements and efforts to transform War Memorial Plaza into a presidential arena.

Ian Brennan, a spokesman for Dixon, said the spot was selected largely for logistical reasons. It's close to the train station, easily accessible and has a proven track record when it comes to security: It played host to Queen Marie of Romania in 1926 and O'Malley's mayoral inauguration party in 1999.

But it is a solid symbolic site as well, particularly for a man associated with the word change.

The location, bounded by Holliday, East Fayette, Gay and East Lexington streets, was once swampland. In the Colonial era, it was home to gambling dens. In the late 1800s, industry and commerce took hold. In 1927, it was reshaped into a memorial to the 1,769 Marylanders killed in World War I.

Since then, it has been the site of civil rights protests in the 1960s and turtle derbies in the 1980s. In 2001, thousands of Ravens fans followed the team there to celebrate its Super Bowl win. Last year, a 13-foot bronze statue dedicated to black soldiers was moved there.

And tomorrow, the country's first black president will speak to the 30,000 who can fit on the plaza. The rest will have to gather at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater (Pratt and Light streets) or in front of the National Aquarium (Pratt and Gay streets) - the designated "overflow" sites - where Obama's speech will be broadcast on giant video screens.

People who can't make it downtown can see the president-elect (joined by Vice President-elect Joe Biden) at the Edgewood train station in Harford County, where the Democrats will address the crowd from the back of the train. Gates there open at noon for the 2:30 p.m. event.

Train passengers traveling through Baltimore can expect a slower trip because of Obama's visit. Delays of 30 to 60 minutes are expected tomorrow between Philadelphia and Washington, Amtrak said.

The Baltimore program officially begins at 4:15 p.m., though gates to the plaza open at 1 p.m. Those who make it in can expect to stand in the cold for hours and to submit to a search. No big bags, weapons, aerosols, packages, coolers, glass or thermal containers, bikes, laser pointers or "structures" will be permitted. Blackford was unsure whether the ban applied to portable chairs, but thought it likely.

"Have a plan and arrive early," he advised.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III canceled leaves and plans to have up to 2,500 officers - 75 percent of the force - patrolling the city Saturday, said spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

"It's an all hands on deck request," he said.

The FBI is in charge of crisis-management, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will handle natural disasters, Blackford said. The Department of Public Works is cleaning "around the clock," according to the mayor's office.

Department of Health and Mental Hygiene staff are on call, paramedics are gearing up to deal with cold-related injuries, and tips are trickling in from various agencies. Brennan sums them up: Wear extra layers and warm shoes; pack snacks and bring water (there will be 115 portable bathrooms available); and learn the signs of hypothermia and frostbite.

Brennan wasn't sure how much all the preparations would cost, though each agency is tracking what it spends in hopes of reimbursement. He's counting on the crowds to deliver "all kinds of extra business."

"And of course when the Ravens win on Sunday, we'll have additional things to celebrate," he added. "We have a lot of things going for us this weekend."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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