St. Petersburg City Council extends Grand Prix through 2020

St. Petersburg voted 7-1 on the IndyCar contract, ditching a proposal to operate the race itself.
Juan Pablo Montoya wins at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2015. The City Council extended the race contract through 2020. [Photo Luis Santana | Times] Luis Santana   |   Times
Juan Pablo Montoya wins at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2015. The City Council extended the race contract through 2020. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]Luis Santana | Times
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ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council decided not to fiddle with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, approving a contract extension Thursday that will keep the IndyCar race roaring along the waterfront through 2020.

But the hourlong discussion took a few detours.

Council member Jim Kennedy, who proposed his own plan to resolve the stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays last month, unveiled a proposal for the city to strike its own deal with IndyCar and operate the race itself.

"It's an opportunity for the city of St. Petersburg to control its own destiny," Kennedy said. "This is not about accepting the status quo. It's about getting the best deal for the city."

Council member Wengay Newton argued along similar lines, saying the race promoters, Green Savoree St. Petersburg LLC, should pay $1 to the city for each person who buys a ticket.

Under the deal negotiated by Mayor Rick Kriseman, the promoters offered to pay $1 for each attendee over 140,000. This year, the race drew 160,000, a record since it debuted in 2005.

A visibly angry Kriseman said IndyCar had no interest in partnering with the city, and he cautioned against the city assuming all the financial risk.

"If there's a rainout, our taxpayers are on the hook," he said.

And he pushed back against Newton's suggestions that the promoters weren't giving the city a fair deal.

"If we have a problem with businesses being successful in this city, I have a problem with that," Kriseman said.

Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes said cities do many things well, but they should steer clear of operating a race that is seen around the world.

"It just seems to me to be a real opportunity to screw things up," Gerdes said.

In September, Kevin Savoree reacted angrily when council members questioned why the company wouldn't open its books and pondered whether the city had outgrown the race, which shuts down some waterfront neighborhoods for several days while the track is being set up.

On Thursday, city staff highlighted several compromises reached with the promoters to extend the contract for three more years after it expires in 2017.

This summer, waterfront anchors the Salvador Dalí Museum and the Mahaffey Theater complained about next year's race being moved up two weeks in March. To help avoid future confusion, the promoters agreed to set the March dates for the next three years.

Aside from the attendance-based profit sharing, Green Savoree also said it would get the track ready four days more quickly than in past years.

City staff presented a study completed in October that showed the race had an economic impact of $48.3 million. The nationally televised race brings an estimated $5 million in marketing value to the city, said Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development.

After Kennedy's plan failed by a 5-3 vote, with Karl Nurse and Newton joining him, the council voted on Kriseman's deal, passing it 7-1 with only Kennedy voting no.

Nurse said he was comfortable with the deal. He had originally raised questions about the contract.

"Life is a compromise. This is clearly a better situation for the city," Nurse said.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. [email protected]

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