Council president urges mayor to end Grand Prix

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City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is urging Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to abandon the troubled Baltimore Grand Prix and focus on "core issues that impact the quality of life for all Baltimoreans."

In an op-ed article submitted to The Baltimore Sun, Young said the city should direct its limited resources to programs that benefit young people and senior citizens, such as public recreation centers and pools, both of which were cut under Rawlings-Blake's budget for the current fiscal year.

"What does it say about our priorities as a city when we move heaven and Earth to continue a street race but will turn our backs on our most vulnerable citizens?" Young wrote.

A Rawlings-Blake spokesman noted that Young had previously supported the race.

"Even though Council President Young very publically supported the Grand Prix and voted to support the race, he is certainly entitled to change his political position now," spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in an email. "If we are able to revive the event with a new company, he is certainly entitled to change his political position again, depending on what's popular at the moment."

City Council members contacted Wednesday said they were conflicted about the race's future. While several said they believed the race should continue — with additional fiscal safeguards — others said the city should postpone the race for a year or cancel it.

Councilwoman Helen Holton said she thought it was too late to pull together a race by Labor Day weekend. "Timing is everything, and right now we're behind the eight ball," said Holton.

The City Council does not play a formal role in decisions about the race. And Young, as City Council president, lacks the power to stop it. While he is chairman of the city's five-member Board of Estimates, which would vote on any race proposal, the mayor controls three seats on the board.

Young, who spent most of Wednesday in Annapolis for the first day of the General Assembly session, declined to comment in detail about his article.

Asked about O'Doherty's remarks, Young said, "This is a typical statement from Ryan O'Doherty who does not know his front from his back. Why attack me for what I believe in?"

Young said in his op-ed that he was initially tantalized by the promise of revenue and international media attention from the race, but the financial collapse of the group that organized it caused him to change his mind.

Baltimore Racing Development owes more than $12 million to vendors, investors and state and local authorities and has been the subject of more than half a dozen lawsuits over unpaid bills.

The company owes the city about $1.5 million, including more than $450,000 in admissions and amusement taxes and $750,000 for city workers assigned to the event, such as firefighters and police.

The city spent more than $7 million, primarily funds that could be spent only on road repairs, preparing two miles of roads near the Inner Harbor for the race. An economic impact report commissioned by the city showed that the race sold 110,000 tickets and pumped about $47 million into the local economy.

Rawlings-Blake's administration severed its five-year contract with Baltimore Racing Development two weeks ago and has been scrambling to find a new group to take over the race. A new group would have to win the support of IndyCar executives and have the management skills and deep pockets to organize an event less than eight months away.

City officials have been closemouthed about their negotiations with possible candidates but say they hope to bring a deal to the city's spending board by the middle of next month.

Young said the city should cease investing time in attempting to salvage the race.

"To continue to pursue the race … is not the best option at a time when so many other important programs and services lack much-needed support," Young wrote.

Young pointed to Washington, D.C., which pulled a similar race about a decade ago following complaints from residents. IndyCar has had a mixed record across the country. Some races have drawn fans for years while others have fizzled out.

In his article, Young repeated his criticism of a Rawlings-Blake initiative to place city recreation centers in the hands of private operators. Rawlings-Blake wants to expand or improve 30 of the city's 55 centers and turn over the others to third-party groups to run.

"I firmly believe that providing recreation opportunities is an important function of city government and should not be farmed out to other organizations," Young wrote. "Giving up control of these centers takes away our power to protect and provide for Baltimore's youths."

Faced with a $61 million shortfall in the city's $1.3 billion operating budget for the current fiscal year, Rawlings-Blake cut the budgets of both pools and recreation centers. Pools opened on a staggered schedule last summer.

Although the administration warned that as many as 10 rec centers could close as a result of budget cuts, recreation officials have pledged to keep the centers open. Four centers were handed over to private groups last month, and officials are slated to open a new round of bids later this month.

Noting that finance officials predict a $52 million shortfall for the coming budget year, Holton said it was not the time for the city to be involved in a venture that could possibly cause the city to lose more money.

"I might support it if we were in a flush economy, but we're not," she said.

Councilman Bill Henry suggested the administration consider pushing back the race a year, rather than trying to rush together an event by September. Delaying the race would "take the pressure off" and allow time to "find the best possible management," Henry said.

"I'm not convinced it was a bad idea," Henry said of the race. "It's obvious it wasn't managed as well as it could have been. I wonder how realistic it is to ask that anyone who comes to us to be the management team should already have a title sponsor."

Council members Robert W. Curran and Rochelle "Rikki" Spector both said they wanted to see the race continue. "No one can measure civic pride," Curran said. "I like to believe the Grand Prix uplifted the city in a sense."

Freshman Councilman Brandon Scott said he supports the idea of the race but wants assurances it will be run correctly.

"Naturally, I want anything that benefits the city," he said. "I support the race going forward, as long as we find the structure and an operator that can benefit the city. Everyone involved needs to learn from their mistakes."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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