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Grand Prix numbers show promise for future

The phone at the Baltimore Grand Prix has been “ringing off the hook” with interest from new investors and sponsors for next year, the event’s CEO said Thursday, adding that the organizers will be able to pay all their bills even though they didn’t make a profit on the inaugural race.

Jay Davidson’s comments came on the day the city’s convention and tourism bureau released preliminary figures that showed a 44 percent increase in average weekend hotel revenue over Labor Day weekend 2010 among 11 Baltimore hotels.

The study, conducted by Pittsburgh-based marketing and economic research firm Forward Analytics and paid for by the tourism bureau, also showed a 119 percent revenue increase over last year in weekend revenue at city-owned parking garages.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake highlighted what she called the “very positive preliminary economic indicators” at a news conference Thursday morning at the Baltimore Visitor Center, which still sits in the shadow of a mammoth grandstand erected for last weekend’s race.

The mayor was backed — literally — by 14 officials from the city, the race, racing organizations and Baltimore’s hospitality industry.

“These are all positive indicators showing that Baltimore has a successful event to build on for next year and for years to come,” the mayor said. “Baltimore experienced an economic boost that otherwise would not have occurred on Labor Day weekend.”

Forward Analytics will conduct a comprehensive economic analysis of the race that will be finished by about Oct. 1, said Thomas Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism bureau.

But even without the full analysis, Davidson, president and CEO of Baltimore Racing Development, said he is confident the stage has been set “to make this a staple event for Baltimore and the region.”

“Our purpose this year was to build equity in the event — to make it an event the people enjoyed and wanted to come back to year after year,” he said.

More than 110,000 tickets were sold for the three-day event, Davidson said, and with various sponsorships and packages, approximately 160,000 people attended the race.

However, the event never secured a title sponsor, nor did it make a profit, Davidson said.

“These are tough events to make a profit off of in the first year — even in year two,” he said.

“We actually have a number of investors who want to increase their shares,” Davidson said. “We’ve also got some folks who are looking at us for sponsorships.

Two of the original investors in the Grand Prix, Steven Wehner and Sean Conley, have filed actions against BRD seeking more than $1 million between them. The actions, known as confessed judgments, claim that BRD defaulted on agreements to buy out the pair’s ownership stakes.

“We’ll let that process play out,” Davidson said. “We will pay them what they’re due. But we have a disagreement over what that is.”

Noonan, the tourism bureau president, said the initial hotel results included figures from a range of properties, from boutiques to “big boxes” and airport hotels.

In addition to the increase in revenue, he said the hotels surveyed saw a 55 percent increase in daily room rates over last year.

While all of Baltimore’s hotel rooms weren’t sold out, as BRD officials predicted they would be when they pitched the race to city officials more than a year and a half ago, Noonan said that hoteliers were satisfied.

“Are the hotels happy this morning with the outcome of Labor Day weekend?” he asked. “When you hear a 55 percent increase in rates and a [44] percent increase in revenue? I think projections were met. I think people are very, very happy. It’s traditionally a weekend here that people spend on the beach.”

Noonan and Davidson also addressed the “hits and misses,” as Noonan called it, with downtown restaurants. Establishments closer to the race course had banner weekends, but those a little farther afield, including in Little Italy, had little business.

Davidson said that while organizers could have done more, the restaurants also should have worked harder to draw patrons.

“Frankly, I think it’s incumbent on those restaurants and those areas of the city as well as us to sort of work together to make that happen for people,” he said.

“There was a little bit of concern, and I think it was more media-driven than anything, about this great fear of traffic during the weekend,” he added. “I think actually traffic seemed to work pretty smoothly.

“I think going forward, people are going to be less concerned about coming down and enjoying their traditional restaurants that they typically utilize. I think the restaurants in Fells Point, Little Italy will benefit even more going forward.”

Asked what the restaurants could have done, Davidson said: “From what I saw, in our partner hotels, frankly, there could have been more reach out to the guests who were in those hotels. I don’t think a lot of those folks even knew where to go within the city to find great Italian dining.

“There was a good understanding in the confines of the track where our partner restaurants were. But I think some of the restaurants in the region could have done a better job. And maybe we could as well.”

Sergio Vitale, chef and co-owner of Aldo’s restaurant in Little Italy and Chazz: A Bronx Original Restaurant in Harbor East, was at the news conference to hear Davidson’s comments, and said he was going to chalk them up “to the fact that [Davidson] was exhausted.”

“Little Italy could not have been plugged in more,” said Vitale. “We had a street festival and nobody showed up.”

Vitale declined to say how many dinners his restaurants served Friday night, but did say that both establishments were “dead.” He added, though, that he expects to work with the organizers for next year’s race, “which I can’t wait for.”

“I’m a native Marylander,” he said. “It was the best sporting event I’ve ever been to in my life.”