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Restaurateurs hope Grand Prix delivers

In the four months since Race On LLC took over planning the Grand Prix of Baltimore, which begins Friday, organizers have had a lot on their plates.

Darin Mislan, a managing partner with Kali’s Restaurant Group, says that many downtown restaurants felt ‘cut off from the activity’ of last year’s Grand Prix, but he expects things to be better this year.

Not least of their worries has been assuring restaurant owners citywide that they, too, will have plates piled high and dining rooms filled as an estimated 100,000 motorsports fans flood the Inner Harbor this weekend. Business owners haven’t forgotten the disappointment after the first Grand Prix, when the actual levels of spillover business fell short of their inflated expectations.

This time around, though, business owners said they feel better prepared and more confident in race promoters, who anticipate a smoother experience for visitors and higher sales for local establishments.

“Last year, it was my feeling, and certainly the predominant feeling in Fells Point, that we were sort of cut off from all the activity,” said Darin Mislan, a managing partner with Kali’s Restaurant Group. “But from what I’ve heard, the race organizers have really made the effort to address things that went wrong.”

Tim Mayer, general manager with Andretti Sports Marketing, said his team has tried to consider the impact on local businesses throughout the planning process, especially regarding traffic and accessibility, the dominating issues last year.

“I think owners have had a lot of comfort in our theme: ‘Downtown Baltimore is open for business,’” Mayer said.

Their efforts — such as minimizing street closures and designating more pedestrian walkways — haven’t gone unnoticed.

“We have been so included in everything,” said Gia Blatterman, owner of Café Gia in Little Italy, an area particularly hard-hit last year. “This new group has been working so closely with us. It’s outstanding. I’m a hundred percent behind them. The effort itself is enough to make a difference.”

At the inaugural Grand Prix, fewer people than expected stuck around each night to have dinner in the city. Lisa Rachuba, a manager at Chiapparelli’s in Little Italy said the restaurant almost closed early because business was so slow.

This year, races will end earlier each night — 7 p.m. at the latest — to give attendees more time to find a dinner spot.

“One of the biggest things we needed them to do was let people go early enough from the stands,” Blatterman said. “Last year, nobody was walking around. That crushed us.”

Restaurateurs also complained about losing local customers, even if they snagged business from out-of-towners. With so much uncertainty about accessibility and traffic, many people simply stayed home.

Mislan said his typical weekend crowd — patrons heading down Interstate 83 for a fancy dinner — was absent last year at Kali’s Court Restaurant in Fells Point.

Jade Gurss, the communications director of Andretti Sports Marketing, said organizers have added six gateways to the track and six pedestrian bridges, allowing race-goers to cross more frequently and exit from more locations around the course.

“There were not nearly as many crossover points last year,” Gurss said. “The crowds for businesses just didn’t materialize, primarily because the racing went into the evening, and they had a limited number of gates that basically would funnel people in just a few directions.”

The construction schedule was created to minimize traffic disruptions and prevent pedestrians from getting overwhelmed or confused, Mayer said. They spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on signage, he said, to direct people where they need to go, whether driving or on foot.

Some restaurants are offering “Grand Prix Fix” menus for the weekend, while others are holding promotional events tailored to their unique cuisine or environment. The Little Italy Grand Prix Kickoff, for example, will bring American Le Mans Series drivers to High Street on Wednesday from 6-9 p.m.

Race organizers have also provided several restaurant owners on Pratt Street with discounted tickets to make available to patrons, Mayer said, and last week they announced a partnership with the National Aquarium. People who purchase a seven-day aquarium ticket will receive a 10 percent discount on tickets to the race.

Several area hotels are hoping to cash in, as well, including the Hyatt Regency Baltimore, located on Light Street inside the course, and the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court Baltimore, which is just outside the track. Both hotels, among others, are offering special room packages that include general admission tickets for each guest.

The goal is to facilitate a “win-win” for themselves and local businesses, Mayer said.

“Each of these pieces individually may seem small,” Gurss said. “But we feel that on a cumulative basis, they should make a big difference for the neighborhoods.”

Several people said they’re hopeful the changes will ease the headache of getting around downtown, enticing people to stay for dinner. Still, some skepticism remains.

“It’s my understanding they’re trying to drive traffic to all neighborhoods — not just downtown,” Mislan said. “But I don’t know how they’re going to achieve that.”

Mislan said it’s his relationships with hoteliers that will help him lure in customers.

“I’ll talk to the front desk, to the bellmen and concierges, or call a driver and get people over,” he said. “It’s a matter of making it easy to get from the front desk to our door and have a seamless experience.”

Kali’s Court runs a limo service to and from downtown hotels, he said, which wasn’t available last year because of road closures. For Mislan’s group, success all depends on whether their vehicles, as well as taxis and shuttle buses, can easily access the area.

“If the roads are cleared, I think [business] will be better than last year,” he said, then paused to reconsider.

“Actually, it’ll undoubtedly be better than last year,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t translate to short-term profits for our group, it’s a cultural, wholly important thing for the city. Hopefully, they work the kinks out, and all the businesses and citizenry get behind it.

“And if this is going to be a long-term thing,” he continued, “they need our support as much as we need theirs.”