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Construction begins on St. Petersburg Grand Prix track

ST. PETERSBURG

Monday marked the start of the 35-day construction period required for workers to turn downtown streets into a 14-turn, 1.8-mile IndyCar track for the Fire-stone St. Petersburg Grand Prix.

The race, which will be held March 28-30, will go along an Albert Whitted Airport runway, wind around the Dalí Museum and up First Street SE, then snake around Pioneer Park and down Bay Shore Drive. Its creation will require 20,000 feet of steel-reinforced concrete barriers and 44,000 feet of chain-link fencing.

On Monday, local officials gathered to praise the event and the exposure it brings. It is broadcast on four channels in 200 countries. "That's something that you really can't buy, that kind of attention," said Vice Mayor Kanika Tomalin.

But some businesses along the route didn't share the enthusiasm for an event that comes in the middle of tourist season.

"It is horrible, absolutely horrible," said Billy Cornelius, who owns BayFront Tower Hair Design, which sits on the northern end of the track on Beach Drive. "I complain every year."

Construction cuts down on parking and makes it difficult for his elderly and disabled clients to get in and out of the building, he said.

"It takes away from my business," Cornelius said.

After eight years in the same spot, he's taken to leaving for vacation the week of the race.

At the Kantner Law Firm next to Cornelius' salon, legal assistant Rachelle Vo said staff members know what to expect after four years in the same location.

"It's a little bit of a nuisance for us, but we work around it," Vo said.

She said construction doesn't impact the office as much as race week, when staffers spend a few days working out of satellite offices in Lutz or Palm Harbor.

The Dalí Museum announced earlier this month it would close the weekend of the race because of low attendance.

Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, said the race will boost the city's image and bring an influx of visitors — and television viewers — to its streets.

Steinocher said his organization has been working to help businesses that might be affected by construction, including updating websites and working on a Twitter campaign to advertise parking opportunities.

In general, he said residents and businesses know what to expect with the race, now in its 10th year.

"It's important to us that they still feel they can do business during this time,'' he said.

The real challenge lies in helping visitors here for the busy tourist season understand the logistics of the race and preparations for it during the next month, Steinocher said.

John Brozek, who owns Quality Tyme Rare and Fine Timepieces on First Street SE, expects construction to be a minor inconvenience. The true stressor comes during race week, he said.

The noise can be deafening, he said. A banner on his website will warn patrons to email instead of calling. "For that four days, it does (stinks)," Brozek said.

Still, he says, it's worth the hassle.

"I love the race, I love going to it, I love seeing it," he said. "So I see it as a good tradeoff."

Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727)-893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.

Construction begins on St. Petersburg Grand Prix track 02/24/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 11:26pm]

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