Grand Prix of Baltimore aims to avoid problems of 2011 race

Despite tight schedule, race officials confident of success

August 20, 2012|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

Although organizers of this year's Grand Prix of Baltimore got a late start — taking over with a little more than 100 days to spare — they say the event will run more smoothly because of lessons learned from last year.

Over the past few months, new operator Race On LLC has tweaked the event plan, responding to issues such as complaints that roadside barriers limited access to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and that downtown restaurants saw little spillover business during the 2011 inaugural race.

As a result, construction of barriers and bleachers — which can restrict the flow of pedestrians and vehicles — was shortened from 45 days to 30 days. And races will end earlier, by 7 p.m., giving attendees more time to have dinner downtown.

"Really, the best way for us to approach this has been to sit down with the people who lived through it last year and listen to the details of what went right and what went wrong, and then sit down with those same people and say, 'OK, for the things that went wrong, what can we improve?' " said race general manager Tim Mayer. Still, he said, an ideal run-up to such an event would last closer to 18 months.

"They're not like huge, silver-bullet lessons, but it's like a thousand little things that add up," said Bob Maloney, Baltimore's emergency manager, who will spearhead the city's Grand Prix operations for the second year in a row. "I just think as a city we're more comfortable ... setting up a racetrack in the center of Baltimore."

Local business leaders said they agree, and have seen improvements in the planning that promise to make this year's Grand Prix, Aug. 31 through Sept. 2, less of the bust it proved to be for many restaurants and stores last year.

"My sense is that people are hopeful with these improvements," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. "Everybody has their fingers crossed, and they appreciate the changes."

Based on hours of conversation with public- and private-sector leaders, organizers said, they have tweaked a slew of logistical details to avoid last year's missteps, including streamlining pedestrian traffic patterns and shortening pre-race construction schedules.

Among the changes:

•New gates have been built into the barrier system at street level near each of the pedestrian bridges to alleviate backups that occurred on bridges last year. Additional traffic-control officers will be posted in areas that proved prone to backups last year, such as along Pratt Street near the Baltimore Convention Center and near pedestrian bridges.

•Charles Street will be reopened to traffic following racing events each night, unlike last year, when it was closed for the entire race weekend. Interstate 395 will remain open in both directions until after the Orioles game Thursday night, Aug. 30; last year, the highway was partially closed earlier in the week.

•The bottom level of the Orioles' stadium will be available for emergency shelter during severe weather. When a lightning storm came through the city during last year's event, officials evacuated bleachers but struggled with finding shelter for attendees.

New partnerships in the city are continuing to roll out as well. On Monday, race organizers and National Aquarium officials announced a deal for a seven-day aquarium ticket for the week of the Grand Prix that will earn buyers a 10 percent discount on their race tickets.

Last year's Grand Prix attracted about 160,000 people and had an overall business impact of almost $47 million, in addition to generating more than $1.68 million in city taxes and $2.08 million in state taxes, according to an economic impact study by Pittsburgh-based Forward Analytics Inc. on behalf of the city.

Despite having recently landed its largest sponsor to date in Chrysler Group's Street and Racing Technology, Columbia-based financier and Race On head J.P. Grant has said his group is prepared to lose money on this year's Grand Prix.

But his group intends to pay its debts, he said.

Mayer said that about 75 percent of this year's vendors returned from last year, and that Race On has worked closely with some of the vendors who were never paid last year to make sure their relationship with the Grand Prix goes well this year.

Mayer said the company has also reached out to local business leaders to ask what they'd like to see this year.

"This is really important for us because we intend to be neighbors for a long time here in Baltimore, and we intend for and want Labor Day weekend to be a success for everyone," Mayer said. "We've had to get over a lot of skepticism that came with [taking over the race] as a result of the operation last year, but I think, again, it's a matter of saying what you're going to do and then following through."

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