Every race has its winners and losers — and the Grand Prix of Baltimore is certainly no exception.
But while race fans learned which drivers were victorious before leaving the Inner Harbor Sunday evening, business owners were still wondering whether they’d come out ahead or be left in the dust.
As the crowds dissipated and spilled onto city streets after the final race, restaurateurs from Fells Point to Little Italy awaited their arrival. Yet, at many establishments, the fans never showed up.
“It was downright absolutely lousy,” said Pauline Spiliadis, whose family owns The Black Olive Restaurant in Fells Point. “We had one-third of the business we normally would have. [The race] absolutely killed everything.”
Other owners filled their tables throughout the weekend, but said they are worse off nonetheless thanks to race-related challenges.
For Kamron “Tony” Assadi, owner of Luna del Sea on Pratt Street, the problem wasn’t Labor Day weekend itself. It was the weeks leading up to it.
Assadi caters primarily to an older clientele, who often choose Luna del Sea for the private shuttle and curbside service. But construction blocked his front entrance for the past month, he said, so he brought guests in through the back door, by the trash bins.
“Now, how appealing is it for us to go pick up VIPs from hotels … and bring them through where we take trash out?” he said. “It’s not worth the frustration, the effort. And I’m a believer of [the race], and I’m disappointed.”
His restaurant offered one of the best views of the track available — cars whizzed by just steps away from the front door — so Assadi accepted a deal with race organizers. In exchange for $5,000, they kept his view unobstructed by tarps or other screens and gave him $2,000 worth of tickets he could hand out to his customers.
It worked — sort of. The outdoor seating area bustled with activity throughout the weekend, particularly because it was accessible to non-ticketholders. But the burgeoning crowds outside Luna del Sea posed a dilemma for Assadi, who said people took advantage of his outdoor seating.
By Sunday, his tables were cordoned off with yellow police tape and a sign alerted fans that they were “for paying customers only.” As for the free tickets — he never distributed them.
“To tell you the truth, I have not opened the envelope [of tickets] they gave me,” Assadi said. “It’s idiotic. Why would I do that? I want customers to come here, now I give you ticket to go away?
“These guys came in and … intercepted my business for a whole, entire month,” he continued. “And they come actually in the middle of where we normally seat my diners and they make my area into a sidewalk, then they are charging me … I don’t know what people call that. But there is many names for it.”
Restaurant sales plummeted during the first Grand Prix of Baltimore last year, many owners said, because it generated virtually no spillover traffic and discouraged regular customers from leaving home.
Many business owners said the organizers this year — Race On LLC and Andretti Sports Marketing — were more professional and inclusive than the group in charge last year, adding they were hopeful the second time around would be lucrative.
Little Italy was particularly hard hit last year, but many restaurateurs there said they had been optimistic that improved planning, communication and promotion this year would yield a higher turnout.
No such luck.
Germano Fabiani, who owns Germano’s Trattoria, said business was only marginally better than last year, despite additional promotion efforts. The restaurant drew 30 percent fewer customers than a typical Labor Day weekend, Fabiani said.
“As much as I want to like what could be great for the city, I don’t,” Fabiani said. “Somehow, somewhere, they’re discouraging people from that side to come to Little Italy.”
At Dalesio’s of Little Italy, the story was the same. Owner Paul Oliver said although sales were up a little bit from last year’s race weekend, business was still noticeably slower than usual.
Some restaurants had the most trouble on Friday, when many offices were closed or had employees working different hours. At The Capital Grille on Pratt Street, which is a go-to spot for business lunches, Friday sales suffered greatly, an employee said on Tuesday.
In a game of winners and losers, someone has to come out on top.
Several restaurant owners just outside the race footprint said their establishments received a boost in sales because of their proximity to the track, and other neighborhoods also reported success.
In Federal Hill, for instance, it was business as usual, said Brian McComas, owner of Ryleigh’s Oyster and president of the Federal Hill Hospitality Association.
“Business was great,” in comparison with the 2009 and 2010 Labor Day weekends, he said. But because ticket sales were lower in Year 2 of the race, that translated to slightly less business than last year throughout the area, McComas added.
The South Baltimore peninsula is mostly cut off from the Inner Harbor activity, so he said locals were able to stay home and patronize their favorite eateries as usual.
Generally, success for restaurants hinged on a combination of factors: location, clientele and advertising strategies. With restaurant owners reporting such varied experiences, the challenge for race organizers becomes finding a way to remedy the problems while maintaining what works.
“You aren’t going to satisfy everyone,” said J.P. Grant, one of two financiers with Race On LLC. “But I think if you look at what happened last year versus what happened this year, maybe there was an 80 percent grumbling last year, maybe a 5 percent grumbling this year. But it’s a race the city needs.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who did not return calls for comment on Tuesday, has been a vocal advocate of the Grand Prix and its potential to generate wealth for the entire city.
The economic impact of this year’s race hasn’t been calculated — organizers have not specified when they will announce ticket sales and other financial details. But after the inaugural race last year, city officials released the Audience Research and Economic Impact Study, a report prepared by Pittsburgh-based Forward Analytics Inc.
The study calculated that about $47 million in spending was injected into city businesses because of the event.
Not all economists agree the findings are accurate, however. Another report, by University of Maryland, Baltimore County, estimated a more modest total benefit.
Several people said the intangible benefits are just as crucial, though.
“Labor Day generally has never been all that busy, so from a tourism perspective, we’ve been excited about having people here,” said Thomas J. Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism agency.
But economist Richard Clinch warned against getting overexcited.
“Tourism events like this tend not to pay for themselves on a dollar-for-dollar basis,” said Clinch, the director of economic development for the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore. “The question is, do they have a tourism impact in terms of a reputational impact?”
For very large events, such as the Salt Lake City Olympics, Clinch said the answer is yes. As for the Grand Prix? It’s tough to tell, he said.
“I think these things are good for civic pride … but aren’t going to turn things around [financially] in the city necessarily,” Clinch said.
Some have already compared the Grand Prix to the Preakness, speculating that if the race can mimic the mass appeal and festival atmosphere of Baltimore’s most established large-scale event, it could become just as beneficial for the city.
And indeed, that’s the goal, Grant said. But the reality of a street race is hard to ignore. The construction and traffic closures have, so far, been more disruptive than Preakness preparations.
Despite organizers’ pledges to review all aspects of the event, several business owners said they doubt next year will be a brighter story.
“How can it be better?” the Black Olive’s Spiliadis said. “People from the counties say, ‘Oh my god, there’s a race, we’re not going to go anywhere near downtown.’ You think that’s promoting businesses? No, of course not.”