ST. PETERSBURG — With the city's budget slashed last spring to save millions, the man credited with bringing the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to town thought the popular race had outpaced the need for $150,000 guaranteed annually.
A mid October City Council vote in favor of continuing the contract for a year with Andretti Green Promotions, however, shelved Thomas Begley's vision that those dollars could better be used for other programs.
It raised an issue of just how the annual IndyCar and American Le Mans Series fete benefits the city and how to measure its success.
"If the council has given them that, they don't have all the facts and they don't understand the situation," said Begley, who has written council members and City Hall numerous times about the issue. "We can't retain firefighters we've trained, and we can't have summer programs for youth. This doesn't make any sense to me."
In 2004 the city gave race organizers $3.6 million in capital improvements for $1. The outlay was widely seen as a necessary expense to lure investors who were taking a chance on a new venture.
Begley had begun efforts to bring a car race to St. Petersburg 12 years ago and worked through its first year with original promoter Dover Motorsports. In 1991, he paid less than $50,000 for the assets of a waterfront grand prix that had gone bankrupt. In 1996, he staged a Trans-Am race around Tropicana Field. In 2003, he scored the first Grand Prix, sanctioned by Championship Auto Racing Teams.
"I thought it was a perfect community event," he said. "It has national and international exposure, and it drives tourism. All I'm saying is, when we gave them the ranch to begin with, why are we annually giving them more money?"
The annual money is intended for city services that include building of racetrack barriers, in-ground improvements and safety systems. Those assets revert to the city should Andretti Green sever its relationship, said Kevin Dunn, a spokesman for Mayor Rick Baker's office.
Dunn said the outlay is worth the exposure the race brings.
"In exchange for that, we have an internationally recognized event with world-class coverage, and that is an invaluable commodity that is hard to put a dollar amount on," Dunn said. "The city did a great job of positioning itself. … They compare this venue to Monte Carlo and live network panning our downtown waterfront."
With the 2010 race slated for live coverage on ABC, viewership likely will increase, Dunn said. Begley counters that viewership is difficult to measure in international markets. Baker has promoted TV coverage of the Grand Prix in touting the event's growth.
The TV coverage was at least part of the reason council member Karl Nurse voted to renew the contract on Oct. 15. An anecdote convinced him of its worth.
"The attendance numbers are all over the ballpark, but the television, I know someone who was on vacation in Spain and turned on the TV and saw it," Nurse said. "I supported it because the Grand Prix obviously attracts a lot of people to town, but more importantly it is shown on TV across the world, and I have to tell you that spring in St. Petersburg and a race with our waterfront in the background is worth a lot of money."
To Begley, a better deal could result from ending the $150,000 subsidy and diverting it to other programs that may wind up on the chopping block.
"The response will be, 'We'll find the money for those things,' " Begley said. "Well, why isn't the $150,000 here important? It's a matter of fairness more than anything else. I think they're loaded with temerity, and I think they're taking advantage of the taxpayers."