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Downtown businesses want more from St. Pete Grand Prix

ST. PETERSBURG — Even with more than 50,000 people invading downtown in March for the Honda Grand Prix, Mike Shapiro already knows sales at his gallery will tumble during the three-day event.

He isn't alone.

Some downtown business owners want the city to better promote local establishments to the fans, tourists and crew members who will flock to downtown and spend millions of dollars on food and lodging while they are there.

Shop owners stressed that they understand the financial benefits the race brings. But they also think the city should develop a plan to draw people to areas outside the racetrack since the event comes at the height of tourist season.

"It's a downtown event," said Shapiro, who owns Shapiro's Gallery on Beach Drive NE. "They should embrace this more."

Other owners attribute declining sales to the flashing signs that direct cars to park at Tropicana Field and to locals staying away since they fear road closures and overcrowded parking conditions on Beach Drive.

Some suggested an event at Straub Park — held when cars aren't barreling around the track — might help.

"We sit here and do nothing," said Paul Bailey, owner of Savory Spice Shop. "There's parking."

Tim Ramsberger, general manager of the race, said the focus is to keep fans and their wallets inside the track barriers from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. since merchandise, food and drink sales help pay for the event.

Ramsberger is open to suggestions from business owners. He pointed out that fans are allowed to leave and reenter the race.

And the city, he said, distributes local guides to fans inside the race.

"We do are best to promote local businesses," Ramsberger said. "We want to help them."

The race runs each spring to kick off the Indy Car racing calendar. The 2013 event is March 22-24. Crews will begin assembling the track in late February.

While the race exposes St. Petersburg to a worldwide television audience, the popular event has not been without problems.

In June, the City Council unanimously approved a three-year contract extension with race officials to keep the Grand Prix here through 2017 despite objections from residents.

People who live downtown complained about the noise from big rigs delivering fences and barriers for the construction of the track.

Leaders at the Mahaffey Theater and the Salvador Dali Museum wanted the city to renegotiate a shorter time that their venues would be penned up behind concrete and steel barriers. The contract allows 68 days for setup and removal.

The race did shave 10 days off the set up and removal times last year.

Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination, cautioned that the downtown streets would be gridlocked without flashing signs directing cars to parking lots.

He said it's fair for business owners to raise questions about luring customers to other downtown locales when the race isn't going on, adding: "We need to pay more attention to this."

The goal, Ballestra said, is to keep people spending money in the city long after the race ends each day. Last year, an Indiana firm wanted to set up a "chill lounge" for people to relax after the race, but the plan collapsed.

Another challenge is the weather.

Ballestra said it's possible that people head for homes and hotels after spending the entire day in the heat.

Restaurants and bars, Ramsberger said, benefit the most. He suggested that speciality shops stay open later or promote sales in the local guide.

Another business owner says the race presents a balancing act.

Tourists and race teams fill up the Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House at night but not during the day, said owner Steve Westphal.

"Do they buy big bottles of wine?" he said. "Yes. You can't get much better than that."

While the night sales are robust, Westphal also would like to see additional events added to draw people downtown during the day.

Shapiro, the gallery owner, also faults the media for heavily promoting road closures. He wonders whether residents stay away because they believe downtown is snarled in gridlock.

He added: "It's an unintended consequence."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

Downtown businesses want more from St. Pete Grand Prix 12/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 10:24pm]
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