City officials closemouthed on Grand Prix search

Officials decline to explain how they will choose new group to run race

January 09, 2012|By Julie Scharper and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore officials are conducting a swift and informal search for a new team to manage the city's Grand Prix race — and are declining to explain how or by what criteria they are making decisions.

After severing the contract late last month with the beleaguered company that staged the inaugural race, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration has been courting potential successors. City officials declined on Monday to name the groups that are seeking to run the event — or even to say how many have signaled interest.

Some City Council members, citing the first group's financial difficulties, urged the administration to demonstrate more transparency. Baltimore Racing Development Inc. owes more than $12 million to various creditors, including $1.5 million to the city.

"We lost a lot of taxpayers' money. We need to make sure it will be secure if they move forward," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said of the administration's search. "We're the ones paying the bill."

Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos, who is spearheading discussions for the city, has said there are only a few groups that IndyCar would consider approving to run the race. She said Monday the final contract would go through a public vetting process when it came before Baltimore's spending board. The mayor controls a majority of the Board of Estimates' five members, and the panel has not voted down a contract in recent memory.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said in an email that Parthemos "sought and received formal legal advice on this matter, and the city's lawyers are completely confident that a proper and completely legal process is under way."

The head of one out-of-town racing group that submitted a seven-page plan to take over the race said his interactions with the city left him wondering if Baltimore officials had already made up their minds.

"I don't know if they've already chosen their path, or if they are really looking at all options," said Geoff Whaling, CEO of North American Motorsport Events Inc.

Parthemos announced last week that the city wanted proposals by Saturday from groups looking to take over the event. Monday, she said she actually had been seeking "expressions of interest" from groups, not formal proposals.

"We have not received formal proposals, and discussions are ongoing and preliminary at this time," Parthemos said in an email. She said the city had heard from "a handful of groups."

Clarke said that if the administration did not disclose all the details of negotiations, officials should at least describe the "parameters" of what they are seeking.

Councilman James B. Kraft said he realized the city could not disclose confidential information about companies but said it should at least make the process open.

"I think whenever we make a decision of this magnitude, there should certainly be openeness in the process," he said.

But Councilman William H. Cole IV, a strong supporter of the race and close ally of the mayor, said he didn't see the informal nature of the search as a detriment.

"When they first came to the city for the marathon, they didn't have a big, formal process," Cole said. "There's no process that you can point to and say, 'That's the ideal way of doing it.' There's only a handful of operators in the country who can" put on an IndyCar race.

Cole emphasized that speed was needed in the decision-making process, and he worries increasingly about the future of the race — planned for Labor Day weekend — as time goes by.

"At some point, it's just too late," he said.

Rawlings-Blake's administration is pushing hard to continue the race, which pumped $47 million into the economy, according to a study commissioned by the city. The administration paid nearly $7 million for road work to prepare streets for the race and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on salaries for city workers, such as firefighters and police, who were assigned to the event.

City officials say they are able to bypass a formal request for proposals and bid process in seeking a new group to run the race because the contract is for a "professional service." Other events, such as the African American Heritage Festival or the Baltimore Marathon, are awarded contracts by a similar process, they say.

Racing experts say that a new group must begin by March at the latest to organize a September race.

Sources close to the negotiations say that Dale Dillon, the former general manager of Baltimore Racing Development, is among the leading contenders to take over the race.

One group expressing interest, Whaling's North American Motorsport Events, submitted a plan to the city late last week after reading a Baltimore Sun article in which Parthemos said she was seeking proposals by Saturday.

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