Rolley makes a campaign issue of Grand Prix
Sun colleague Childs Walker reports:
Mayoral challenger Otis Rolley questioned Monday whether the city will profit from the Baltimore Grand Prix, and called on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to release all city documents related to the three-day event.
Other challengers in next month’s Democratic primary joined in the criticism, saying the event raised doubts about Rawlings-Blake’s spending priorities, and how carefully she weighed the costs and benefits of the race before she pledged millions of dollars to support it.
The Baltimore Grand Prix, a three-day event culminating in an IndyCar race through the streets along the Inner Harbor on Sept. 4, is one of the most visible projects Rawlings-Blake has pursued during her 18 months in office.
Rolley’s press conference, and the follow-up remarks by former City Councilman Joseph T. “Jody” Landers and state Sen. Catherine Pugh, amounted to the most significant attempt yet by Rawlings-Blake’s challengers to portray the event as a potential liability for the city and its mayor. The race comes nine days before the Sept. 13 mayoral primary.
Rawlings-Blake has signed a five-year agreement pledging $7.75 million in road work for the race. Much of the money comes from the federal government, and city officials say most of the work would have been necessary in coming years anyway.
Rolley, who is challenging Rawlings-Blake in the Democratic primary, noted that the city cut funding this year for after-school programs, and the mayor proposed staggering swimming pools schedules, closing fire companies on a rotating basis and reducing the hours of the city’s 311 service request line.
He questioned how much thought Rawlings-Blake put into the Grand Prix before signing off on it.
“It sounded like a cool idea, and she ran with it,” Rolley said. “That’s not what we expect in terms of leadership from the mayor of the city.”
A campaign spokeswoman for Rawlings-Blake said Rolley was muddying the issue by implying that federal money for roadwork could have been directed to other needs.
"As Mr. Rolley should know, since he was former Mayor [Sheila] Dixon's chief of staff and the Founding President/CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, federal road dollars can only be spent on road projects — not rec centers or any other purpose,” spokeswoman Keiana Page said in a statement emailed to reporters before Rolley spoke.
“The Grand Prix will bring 100,000 people to Baltimore on Labor Day weekend,” Page said. “It will provide a tremendous boost to struggling small businesses like restaurants and shops — as well as hotels. And it is unbelievably cynical for Mr. Rolley to try to lift his failing campaign by belittling something that will boost our economy and improve Baltimore’s image nationally and internationally.”
Political scientist Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University, said Rolley chose an inviting target.
“It’s something that has caused a lot of Baltimoreans recent inconvenience,” Crenson said. “And there is doubt over whether it’s going to pay for itself.”
Contacted by The Baltimore Sun, other Democratic challengers quickly piggybacked on Rolley’s comments. Pugh questioned spending millions of dollars on a concentrated area when roads are dilapidated around the city.
“I think you have to ask whether this is the right economic engine for Baltimore when you look at what has happened with races in other cities,” she said.
Landers said he hopes the Grand Prix will succeed.
“But my whole impression is that they did not really do their homework,” he said. “I’m not convinced that the costs and benefits are going to match up.”
Crenson said the mayor remains the candidate to beat, but her challengers are smart to register their doubts about an event that could blow up in her face shortly before the primary.
“This is their last, best chance,” he said.
Rawlings-Blake, who championed the race as City Council president, signed the contract pledging $7.75 million for roadwork three months after she was sworn in as mayor last year.
While critics have raised complaints about traffic delays and questions about the race’s economic potential, the mayor has defended the move as a bold attempt to lure money and attention to downtown Baltimore.
The record for street racing in other cities is mixed. Races have become annual fixtures in Long Beach, Calif., and St. Petersburg, Fla.
But the District of Columbia gave up its race after a year after residents complained of the noise. San Jose, Calif. backed away after three years because of cost concerns.
Even the Baltimore race’s staunchest supporters say the inaugural running is unlikely to be profitable for the city. They describe it as a long-term investment in Baltimore’s image that could pay off if it makes the city a destination for race fans each Labor Day — and if it helps lure bigger events such, as an Olympics or World Cup.
City officials have said they teamed with race organizers to produce a study that showed the race will produce $70 million in economic impact.
But Rolley questioned the figure, citing a Baltimore Sun report that said the economic impact of the long-established events in St. Petersburg and Long Beach was little more than half that.
City officials say they will receive about $2 million in direct tax benefits from the race. Organizers also are required to pay the city a $250,000 annual fee and another $500,000 in the first year to cover costs for police, firefighters and other services related to the event. That second figure will increase in future years.
Rolley accused the mayor of “refusing to be transparent” in laying out the costs and potential revenues for the event.
He said that based on the incomplete figures he has seen, “the mayor’s Grand Prix is more likely to cost the taxpayers money than to make money.”
“We have been transparent,” Page countered. “City Hall released thousands of pages of documents to The Sun and [the Associated Press] last week. What more does he want?”
Rolley said that if he had been mayor, he would have considered pursuing the Grand Prix but probably would have passed on it, based on the existing evidence.
He said he has spoken to voters who are “very frustrated that this is seen as a priority when people are dying and our schools are struggling.”