Imagine this. For a modest investment of $150,000, the city of St. Petersburg draws 160,000 race fans to its downtown waterfront. Tampa Bay gets tens of thousands of hotel nights, millions in economic impact and hours of worldwide television exposure for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Yet a City Council with a chip on its shoulder questions whether it is worth the money, offends the well-respected race organizers and jeopardizes the future of an event that took years to establish and that other cities would beg to attract.
Once again, the City Council sent the wrong signal this week to anyone outside St. Petersburg with the sophistication and financial means to bring signature events or developments to the city. A discussion of Mayor Rick Kriseman's plans to extend Green Savoree Racing Promotions' contract by three years turned sour. It reinforced the impression that this council can be its own worst enemy, too often driven by parochialism and an irrational fear of being exploited by more savvy private interests.
There are legitimate issues to discuss with Grand Prix promoters. Their decision to run the race earlier next year should have been talked over first with local hotels, museums and other businesses caught by surprise. But the city and the promoters are essentially partners, and these are not insurmountable issues.
Instead, the council meeting dissolved into attacking the race promoters, suggesting the contract go out for bid and floating the notion that somehow St. Petersburg no longer needs all of that free television exposure of its gorgeous waterfront. IndyCar has only a handful of the popular street races, and Green Savoree promotes both the St. Petersburg and Toronto races. Long Beach, Calif., has had a street race for decades. Boston gets its first IndyCar street race next Labor Day. But to council member Amy Foster, St. Petersburg apparently has moved beyond cities such as Boston and Toronto in cultural richness and may no longer need a race that draws international attention.
This is not just one bad day at City Hall. Remember the shabby treatment of renowned architects who pitched innovative visions for a new pier. Grand Prix critics such as council members Jim Kennedy and Wengay Newton also needlessly attack the credibility of the Tampa Bay Rays ownership, block the team from looking for new stadium sites and prevent a $1 billion redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site.
City Council members should ensure the city is fairly treated and reasonably spends public money. They should raise concerns when their constituents are blindsided. But this is not the 1980s, when downtown St. Petersburg was desolate and desperate to court any developer with shiny renderings or promoters of minor car races. The city is fortunate to attract interest from sophisticated business people with proven track records and financial means. The City Council should cultivate those relationships rather than poison them.
The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is a tremendous asset that should be preserved. There is no reason to seek another race promoter. The differences should be resolved and the contract should be extended. If council members still question the value of an IndyCar street race, they should call Toronto or Boston.