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Rawlings-Blake remains supportive of Grand Prix despite criticism

It was a big risk, and they all took it.

J.P. Grant, the primary owner of the Grand Prix of Baltimore, took a risk when he formed Race On LLC to finance the event.

Business owners took risks — some deciding to close for the weekend; others beefing up employee schedules and launching special promotions.

But when it comes to the Grand Prix — which is taking at least a two-year hiatus from the Inner Harbor — the biggest risk-taker in Charm City might have been Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Rawlings-Blake has been enthusiastic about the street race since the beginning, back in 2011, and has repeatedly extolled the benefits to the city of hosting such a grand event. Even after the inaugural race, which was organized by a different group that walked out on millions in unpaid bills to vendors and the city, the mayor remained supportive.

She called the race a “game changer” for Baltimore, which in 2011 was still reeling from years of recession-driven budget cuts and was aching for new revenue. A dose of positive nationwide exposure wouldn’t hurt, either — and Rawlings-Blake saw potential in the Grand Prix.

That potential now appears gone.

Officials held a news conference at 3 p.m. Friday to announce the Grand Prix won’t return to Baltimore in 2014 or 2015 because they were unable to resolve scheduling conflicts with other sporting events and conventions planned for the next two Labor Day weekends. Grant also said Race On is out for good.

Despite what some might see as an unwise endorsement, several people said they doubt Rawlings-Blake will suffer any serious backlash for supporting the Grand Prix. They say the failure to reach a scheduling agreement is neither a reflection on the event’s viability in Baltimore nor the mayor’s judgment in promoting it, said business leaders, economists and others.

“I don’t think the mayor, although some people have tried to express it this way, was promoting the Grand Prix as key to her economic development agenda,” said Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald C. Fry. “I think, obviously, having major attractions in Baltimore is part of the economic agenda for the city. But I don’t think the fact that this event had to be postponed or canceled because of scheduling challenges means we should be critical of elected officials who try to do something that is new and creative. I think you’ve got to give credit to those who were involved.”

Political consequences?

Stephen J.K. Walters, professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland, said he doesn’t expect Rawlings-Blake to suffer any political fallout from the loss of the Grand Prix.

Moreover, the mayor has already passed what was probably the biggest test of public response to her enthusiasm for the race: the 2011 mayoral election, held just a couple of weeks after the first race.

“By the time she has to run again [in 2016], this will probably be far enough in the rearview mirror that voters will forget all about it,” Walters said. She’ll be able to spin it as, ‘Well we tried to sell the city, and for a while it worked.’”

On Friday, Rawlings-Blake continued to defend her rationale for supporting the Grand Prix.

“In order to maximize our potential, we have to try,” she said at the news conference. “And so we did with the Grand Prix, and for three years our city generated positive exposure from around the world and millions in new revenue.”

Friday’s announcement came as a surprise to some, despite weeks of “it-doesn’t-look-good” comments from city officials, who joined Grant in expressing disappointment while emphasizing the benefits to Charm City from the past three races.

Grant said 152,864 people attended the 2013 event, held over Labor Day weekend for the third consecutive year. That’s up from last year’s 131,500 attendees, but still less than the inaugural event, which drew about 160,000. Officials estimated there would be similar levels of economic impact — calculated at $42.3 million last year and $47 million in 2011, although some economists have at times been skeptical of those figures.

Tom Noonan, president of tourism agency Visit Baltimore, lauded the boost to hotels over race weekends. In 2009, when there was no major event over Labor Day weekend, the occupancy rate at Baltimore hotels was 48 percent, he said. It was 80 percent for that weekend in 2011, he said, and almost that high the following two years.

“I want Baltimore to think big, and I think we accomplished that,” Grant said.

Despite losing the race, Rawlings-Blake hasn’t lost faith.

“I know that some will continue to question whether Baltimore is the right place to try a Grand Prix,” she said. “And oftentimes, I’ve found that those are the same people who question if Baltimore can do anything big. I just don’t think like that. I don’t believe in giving in to pessimism about our city.”

Final lap

Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district includes the Inner Harbor, said it’s frustrating to bid goodbye to an event that showed great promise. He thinks the odds of the race returning after 2015 are “remote at best.”

“I think it would be very hard to come back,” Cole said. “I think that’s asking a lot. …The reality is, it’s a hard event to put on. It’s a significant commitment, and I just don’t see it. I would be shocked if anybody found a way after a two-year hiatus to make all the pieces work, because you’ll have the same issues. The [Baltimore] Convention Center isn’t going to hold a date in ’16, ’17 or ’18 — nor should they. The scheduling conflicts don’t get any easier moving forward. The challenges won’t go away.”

Cole said he doesn’t think the mayor or any of the race’s many other supporters deserve flak for believing in the Grand Prix.

“I mean, it was a successful event,” he said. “When you look at attendance over the three years, when you look at economic impact, when you look at hotel occupancy rates — those are big numbers. That’s real money. … I think we accomplished many, if not all of the goals that we as a city hoped to accomplish. We brought in people who never would have otherwise come here. I’m sure there will be people who want to criticize, but we did demonstrate that we are capable of doing this kind of event and doing it well. I don’t think it reflects poorly on anybody.”

Walters, the Loyola professor, is among those critics.

“She’s going to spin it as skillfully as she always does,” he said. “For a while, this will be portrayed as a hiatus and there will be denial that this will be the death of the race. The company made it pretty clear that they’re not interested in coming back. In the private sector, if you’re bleeding red ink, you cut your losses and you walk away… People will give the mayor credit for trying and for marketing the city. I just don’t think it was ever a good idea. This is a merciful end for a bad project.”