Baltimore's Grand Prix comes with risks and rewards
The city invested nearly $7 million in the Grand Prix at a time of cutbacks in neighborhood services. It tied up downtown traffic before, during and after a long holiday weekend, less than two weeks before voters go to the polls for a mayoral election.

What could possibly go wrong?

The inaugural Grand Prix swept into Baltimore this weekend with much at stake for a city whose economy and image could both use a boost, and for its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has been the most visible proponent of the much-hyped event.

"It is a big gamble," former Mayor Kurt l. Schmoke said. "If something really bad happens, that could hurt her politically."

But Schmoke is among those who would say, essentially, no guts, no glory: The risks in turning over Baltimore's prime tourist area to a new-to-these-parts street race are immense, especially under the watchful eyes of more than 800 credentialed members of the media. But so too are the potential rewards — from the hope of full hotels, bars and restaurants to broadcasts showing spirited crowds cheering racecars as they speed around Baltimore's tourist showcases.

While the Grand Prix is far from the first high-profile event in Baltimore, which hosts the annual Preakness and has welcomed a baseball All-Star Game and multiple NCAA lacrosse championships, the race allows the gritty city of "The Wire" fame to present a different side of itself to the world.

"Just think of all the TV programs that people pay to come to their cities for that one beauty shot," said Sandy Hillman, the one-time city promotions chief who now runs her own public relations firm. "With this, clearly, with it at the Inner Harbor, you'll get a sense of this exciting part of the city. It'll make us look younger, more energetic, vital and more fun.

"Cities have to do new things. You have to keep yourself out there," said Hillman, whose clients include the government of Singapore, which has its own Grand Prix. "You're going to get a lot of press for this. You're going to get a lot of people in town."

Here on the homefront, whether the event comes off like a charm or is marred by glitches or some unforeseen disaster, it likely will remain fresh in the minds of residents when they go to the polls Sept. 13 to choose between Rawlings-Blake or one of her Democratic primary challengers, who have been hammering her on the issue of whether the benefits of the event will outweigh its costs.

Baltimoreans are coming off several years of cutbacks, including closures of neighborhood fire stations and rec centers and shorter hours at city pools. The outlay of millions of dollars for the Grand Prix, an event catering largely to out-of-towners who will flock to the Inner Harbor, plays into the long-simmering resentment among some city residents that government leaders continually focus resources and attention on the downtown area at the expense of the neighborhoods.

Perhaps with a nod to this, Rawlings-Blake went to a northwestern neighborhood Friday to point out that 90 percent of the city streets that were resurfaced this year were not downtown.

Sports economist Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has long argued that public subsidies for sporting events like the Grand Prix rarely pay back the investment. Indeed, the city has said it does not expect to turn a profit in the first of the five years that it has agreed to host the race.

"The numbers we have been told are way too big," Coates said of projections that the race could generate $70 million in economic impact. Many of the extra jobs that promoters say will come with staging such an event turn out to be temporary or low-paying, he said, such as workers hired to set up and dismantle grandstands or waitresses getting more hours for several days.

And if promoters tend to overstate the returns, Coates said, public officials tend to understate the costs. The millions of dollars the city agreed to spend on roadwork and infrastructure "isn't the entire cost" to taxpayers, failing to account for such expenses as extra police and cleanup, Coates said. (Rawlings-Blake announced Friday that the roadwork cost $6.5 million, or $1.19 million less than projected. A spokesman said much if not all of the cost of providing extra city staff and services for the event will be reimbursed by racing promoters.)

Critics such as Coates further argue that focus on a single, fleeting event diverts attention from more permanent needs in the city.

"What else could they have done with that money?" Coates asks. "Is this producing the most benefit we could get?"

Coates, though, will say the bottom line is not the only factor in deciding whether to host an event like the Grand Prix. There are incalculable benefits, those "priceless" MasterCard-commercial memories that become a part of the city's culture.

Even irritations such as traffic delays tend to become part of the "community camaraderie" that develops when a city puts on an extravaganza, Hillman said.

"This reminds me of when we started City Fair in '71," she said of the festival started during Mayor William Donald Schaefer's administration to help the city recover from the devastating 1968 riots. "Everyone complained, everyone questioned it, and yet it evolved into something of enormous pride."