St. Petersburg merchants pleased Grand Prix will stay

ST. PETERSBURG — Indy car engines will scream in the St. Petersburg streets for a good while longer, and for a lot of downtown merchants, it's a sweet sound indeed.

Despite complaints about traffic and late-night revelry, many business owners in the city said they had record sales this weekend.

A manager of one popular pizza joint said she ran out of beer Friday night — a first for the restaurant.

On Sunday, the last day of the 2008 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Baker announced local leaders and race promoter Andretti Green Promotions struck a deal to keep the popular, albeit loud, event here through 2013.

"Normally, I'd be sitting here reading a book, but I haven't had the chance to sit down," said an obviously tired Ben Pridgeon, taking a drag from his cigarette while ringing up a line of customers at Detroit Liquors.

The 24-year-old said he was ecstatic that the race was extended, and added that he expects the store — which sold "a ton" of plastic "pocket shots" that made it easier for fans to sneak liquor into the race — to rake in an extra $4,000 to $5,000 over the weekend.

Baker's announcement topped off festivities that included mini-carnivals, fireworks and thousands upon thousands of visitors milling around downtown.

The City Council must approve the race extension, but five of the eight members told the St. Petersburg Times that signing off is practically a formality.

"I can't see any reason why we wouldn't," council member Jeff Danner said. "There are always questions about the logistics ... with the people who need to share the space down here, but I think we can find a way to make it all work.

"It's a great event, the city looks great and there's a lot of people out here," he said minutes before the race began.

Enjoying a boost

Up and down Central Avenue, business owners said the race, which brings in more than 100,000 visitors, has grown in popularity over the years. They said the visitors are a blend of northerners and an international crowd, citing folks from Poland, France, Germany and Scotland.

Inside Mastry's, a well-known bar listed in Maxim magazine as a place to visit when traveling to the city, weekend bartender Patricia Warren said "the race has been very, very good to us."

The bar, with a "Welcome Race Fans" sign in its window, was only half full Sunday afternoon, but Warren said "just wait until tonight."

Likewise, Margaret Bishop, the manager of Fortunato's, said her pizza, sub and salad shop extended its hours each weekend night, estimating that she made at least 50 percent more in profits than during a typical weekend — at least until she ran out of beer Friday. She said customers trailed in by the dozens "because they charge an arm and a leg at the race."

Bishop, 48, who lives near the race, said she sympathizes with critics who say the city gets too crowded. But five more years is good overall, "especially since we're losing baseball (spring training)."

Other parts of downtown cheered for the event, too.

Hundreds of spectators lined the balconies of waterfront condominiums for a closer look. Nearby, dozens more sipped cocktails as they caught the race from the roof of the nearby St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

Along Second Street, Grand Prix fans also cheered the decision.

Howie Mahlau, a 35-year-old Progress Energy worker who has attended previous races here, said "it's nice because it puts St. Petersburg on the map for national racing."

Anticipating more

Not all downtown business, however, boomed every night.

While Fresco's Waterfront Bistro thrived Friday night, Saturday's crowd trailed off.

"The rain kind of killed it," said waiter Roger Padactor, 27.

The race, which was already returning next year to the city and is the first street-circuit race on the 2008 Indy Car series, is in its fourth year. It's run on a 1.8-mile, 14-turn course throughout the streets of St. Petersburg.

Baker said the event "has emerged as the city's weekend signature event," and he's looking forward to the extension.

In a released statement, Andretti managing director Kevin Savoree said: "We had a very big vision for this event when we first presented it to the city in 2004 and to be able to announce this agreement ... is not only a milestone for our organization, but a great day for racing fans in the St. Petersburg area."

Times staff writer Brant James contributed to this story.

St. Petersburg merchants pleased Grand Prix will stay 04/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2008 2:05pm]

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