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Day at the races

Mary A. Castillo

Before dawn cracked, workers and volunteers were out clearing the

streets of Downtown Laguna. Yellow tape and orange fencing went up

along Forest Avenue, Third Street, Mermaid and Glenneyre Street.

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Soon the streets would be lined by spectators and filled with

bicyclists ready to be the first participants in the Laguna Beach

Rotary Grand Prix.

The race started at 7 a.m. and in the beginning most the of the

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Downtown shops were closed. But as the day progressed and visitors

strolled along Forest Avenue some merchants became frustrated that

regular customers had a hard time getting Downtown and the race

didn’t seem to bring in many new customers.

The streets were closed off until about 4 p.m.

Many residents also became annoyed that traveling through town

became a nightmare as traffic backed up along the side streets. A pop

warner football game at the high school didn’t help drivers on Park

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Avenue.

Laguna Beach Police Sgt. Doris Higgins said the crowd at the event

was well mannered, but some residents got “pretty testy.”

“Some citizens didn’t know about it. How they missed it I don’t

know because it was in all the papers.”

She said traffic began to back up at about 11:30 p.m. because of

some soccer and football games.

But controversy was the furthest thing from Roger Worthington’s

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mind when he entered the category 30-plus race. The Capistrano Beach

resident, who said he participates in more than 50 races a year, said

the course was extremely challenging.

“On paper it looks simple, but after 50 minutes it’s exhausting.

It puts the racer’s abilities in lung capacity, endurance, speed and

bike handling to the test.”

He also said the race was well organized and volunteers were

cheerful, but aggressive when they had to be, keeping people from

wandering onto the course.

“It brought excitement to Downtown. Very few folks in America have

seen high-speed criterium. It’s difficult to be the first when

organizing an event of this size. They meet a lot of resistance, but

they’re building something for the future. In a year or two this

could be a nationally renowned event. I think it has potential.”

Labor Power Racing team member Roger Worthington agreed about the

benefits of the race and said it showcased the city and demonstrated

that it is 100% behind sports in general.

“It was a very positive and beautiful event. The volunteers did a

wonderful job and the city was obviously behind it. It was a pleasure

to be part of it and I hope it continues in the future.”

The future is just what Pacific Gallery owner Steven Hough is

worried about. He said he and other merchants are furious about what

the event did to business that day.

“My first point of contention is that we’ve been in this location

for 12 years and pay $5,500 rent per month and no one was notified by

the city.”

“I learned about it Friday, the day before the event. I talked to

people up and down this street and no one knew until Friday.”

“The Rotary walked around with their fliers and passed it out to

employees,” he said. “We get so much propaganda and people walking in

from charities asking for a hand out, we just throw those fliers out.

We see it as junk mail.”

Hough clarified that he and most merchants are supportive of

charities and aren’t against the race or raising money for Meals on

Wheels.

“The point is that none of the merchants new about it,” he said.

“We think the city could find other places for a bike race. We just

don’t want to close Forest Avenue.”

“Our business did zero business on Saturday,” he said. “In all 12

years of business we’ve never had a zero Saturday.

Business owner Laura Downing said she too was not adequately

notified.

“I had no idea what we were in for until the day before.”

Downing said her clothing shop did about one-third the business of

what it would normally would do on a Saturday. “And that’s a generous

figure,” she said.

“I have no problems with the Grand Prix, but I don’t like it to

cut into my business hours.”

Scandia Bakery and Coffee Shop owner, Ben Tabrizi, agreed that the

event wasn’t good for business but said he supports it anyway.

“It wasn’t hyped up and a lot of people didn’t know about it. We

found out because our delivery guy couldn’t drive on the street

Saturday,” he said. “But it was a nice event, something new. I’m all

for it.”

Mayor Wayne Baglin said he sympathizes with merchants and

residents, but at the same time, he sees potential for the event.

“By looking at the quality of riders it was a world-class event,”

Mayor Wayne Baglin said. “In that respect I gave it an A-plus. For

its impact on the community in terms of traffic and circulation I

gave it an F. For its impact on the commercial district, it gets very

close to an F.”

“I’ve never seen more stores vacant on Forest Avenue and Coast

Highway. There was no parking, no way to get in and out. People just

wanted to get out of Laguna Beach.

“If they request a future event there will need to be dramatic

changes to mitigate access and business impact,” he said.

Co-chair of the Grand Prix steering committee Bill Parrish said

the Rotary did try to get the word to owners earlier in the week.

“The merchants were contacted in person Wednesday and Thursday,”

he said. “I personally walked almost half of Forest Avenue. We didn’t

always talk to the manager or owner. A whole team of Rotarians walked

through Downtown with packets that contained a free sandwich ticket,

a brochure, a letter from me and a memo from the city.”

Fellow co-chair Patrick Fetzer said more publicity would have

helped bring in more people and inform residents, but he said they

did there part to remind everyone.

“The merchants didn’t hear us when we said that it was going to

happen right on your street. all they heard was a request for a

hand-out or a donated prize,” Fetzer said.

“We knew it would upset some people but so many racers and

families were excited to be there,” he said. “There were over 200

kids in the kids’ race, and it was so cool watching them enjoy the

spotlight and get medals. I hope the parents don’t take it for

granted.”

Directory of Community Services Pat Berry said he felt the day

went smoothly and he was impressed with the concern of Rotarians in

making sure everything got back to normal.

As far as notification to business owners, he said the event was

on the City Council agenda as part of the sign ordinance approved

Sept. 10 and that the event itself was approved in December 2001. He

added that there had been also been a survey about the event.

One thing all parties seem to agree on is that if the Grand Prix

is to happen again next year, some changes must be made. Whether it

be a day change, revised traffic control or improved communication,

more can be done, in nearly everyone’s eyes, to make the event run

smoothly for all.

Baglin suggested a signature system when they notify business

owners and managers. He also suggested bigger signs at entrances to

town and above major streets two weeks ahead of the event.

“In their ad they may want to put a warning about traffic,” Baglin

said. “Sponsors and the Rotary are responsible to get advertising

paid for. The city’s responsibility is to authorize street closures.

If they can’t assure us they can mitigate these problems in the

future, we can’t authorize it.”

Parish said the steering committee is open to making changes where

necessary.

“This was a major learning process and we’re entering a different

dimension [of fund-raising] for a good reason,” he said.

Sgt. Higgins gave a pragmatic suggestion for easing traffic.

“If they apply to do it again next year, I hope they check about

high school and soccer games. Otherwise it was a fantastic event.”

* ALICIA LOPEZ contributed to this story.


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