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Editorial: Good start, with a caution flag

The 2011 Baltimore Grand Prix is history. But is it history worth repeating?

The answer appears to be yes, but the caution flag is still out.

From a city image standpoint, the results were impressive. There were hours of television coverage — although mostly on a lightly watched cable sports network — with scenic backdrops of the Inner Harbor area — just the kind of positive publicity that would cost a fortune in airtime. The weather was good, the stands were full of happy fans and the drivers were laudatory in their comments.

“When I had won the race, on my cool-down lap I looked at every stand and it was full,” said winning driver Will Power. “It feels like they’ve put on the best race we’ve had all year.”

Not a bad endorsement.

From a dollars and cents standpoint, there was more good news. Race organizers said more than 110,000 tickets were sold and total attendance was 160,000.

Preliminary figures released Thursday, based on a sampling of 11 hotels, showed a 44 percent increase in average hotel revenue for Labor Day weekend over the same period in 2010. City parking garages reported a 119 percent increase in revenue compared to the same period last year.

For restaurants, there was more of a boom-or-bust outcome. Restaurants at the heart of the action, such as Morton’s The Steakhouse, which was nearly sold out inside for three nights and sold at least 1,300 steak sandwiches outside, saw the Grand Prix as an economic recovery plan in its own right.

The results were far less salutary for restaurants at some distance from the race course. Eateries in Little Italy reported their area was a ghost town and business was far worse than usual for Labor Day Weekend. Some restaurants elsewhere in the city reported that bookings were down because customers apparently feared venturing into Baltimore with all of the race-related traffic.

Traffic is definitely an issue that must be addressed more effectively next year. Commuting traffic was bearable — barely — through Wednesday, but Thursday was a total disaster on a day when many people still needed to get to work. The images of Thursday gridlock combined with highway message boards warning of major traffic headaches downtown for the weekend no doubt combined to convince many non-racegoers to steer clear of downtown altogether.

There was also room for improvement in information for race fans in terms of how to navigate the site and how and where to escape it by venturing to other destinations, such as Little Italy.

Then there is the matter of the embarrassing lawsuits filed by two early investors in the venture against the race’s current organizers, claiming they were owed hefty sums. In one case the amount was more than $300,000; in the other it was nearly $750,000. Jay Davidson, president of Baltimore Racing Development, says the amounts are in dispute but “We will pay them what they’re due.”

All in all, it seems there is a solid foundation on which to build the 2012 Baltimore Grand Prix. But if you commute to a downtown job by car, you might want to plan now to start next year’s long Labor Day Weekend a day or two earlier.