Donald Fry: The Grand Prix’s lessons

By Donald C. Fry

Every organization has a curmudgeon or naysayer.

You know the type – congenital cynics who sit in the back during brainstorming sessions with their arms folded across their chests. The term “out of the box” is foreign to them. Their reactions to new or bold ideas? “Ahhhh. It’ll never work.”

As we were reminded during the past year, Baltimore City seems to have more than its share of such characters. And they pouted loudly and often in advance of last weekend’s Baltimore Grand Prix.

I admit that during the course of the year I too had my concerns – it was hard to imagine cars speeding in excess of 100 mph on the same downtown streets that we normally crawl home on at the end of the workday. I’d be surprised if some of the event’s biggest cheerleaders didn’t on occasion have to fight off their own doubts about the event’s success.

Critics voiced a litany of potential negatives to hosting a major Indy Car road race on Labor Day weekend in downtown Baltimore – warning of massive traffic jams, the race’s potential to detract from attendance for other downtown attractions, the impact of street closures on commuters to downtown offices, and predictions that the cost of the race would far outweigh the benefits.

Since this is an election year, some naysayer candidates attempted to use the race as a hedge, positioning themselves to benefit from any kind of embarrassing Grand Prix debacle that would give them an “I told you so” election-day advantage.

All of this was amplified by the media in our online age where traditional journalistic values are blurred by the constant demand for fresh news copy – balanced or otherwise – about anything or any controversy.

So, amid the small-but-vocal chorus of pessimism and self-loathing that Baltimore appears to have a unique ability to heap upon itself, how did the Grand Prix work out? By virtually any objective measure, it was an unqualified success.

It attracted well in excess of 100,000 race fans, filled downtown streets on what would otherwise have been a slow weekend, increased revenue for hotels, garnered praise from prominent international race teams and spectators alike, and gained Baltimore literally hours of highly favorable television coverage last Saturday and Sunday.

But what has not been told is that it created a “buzz” among all those who attended that Baltimore was a lively city. There was a sense of pride that Baltimore can pull off something big. It renewed a spirit that we don’t often see.

Meanwhile, the holiday weekend of spectacular racing and associated entertainment and activities occurred free of any serious injury, crime spree or other mishap. And, dire media warnings to the contrary, the traffic wasn’t bad on race weekend.

The event vindicated the vision of elected leaders who championed the race, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Councilman Bill Cole, and the hard work of the Baltimore Grand Prix team, city officials, and the hundreds of event organizers and supporters who spent an enormous number of hours to make the race a remarkable first-year success.

There’s a lot to be learned from this major event experience. First, we are reminded that as a community, we must not be afraid to venture from our comfort zone and to be visionary about what we can accomplish. Big projects always require vision and a break from the status quo. And they always involve risk. We need to be cognizant of risk, but must also cultivate our ability to look beyond it to calculate the ultimate reward.

Big projects are difficult and require extensive planning and overcoming obstacles. If they were easy everyone would be doing them, and there would not be value to the activities. Some inconvenience and cost are normal prerequisites.

Baltimore need not be afraid to strut its stuff – to take on events and projects to showcase its character and demonstrate to regional, national, and international audiences that this is not the downtrodden city projected in gritty television dramas.

Even in today’s austere economic and political environment, Baltimore clearly has the capacity for big events and big projects. Baltimore is a big-league city. For anyone who thinks otherwise, the Grand Prix most emphatically proves them wrong.

As a community, we have affirmed for ourselves that we are very likely capable of more than we might instinctively think – if we just allow ourselves to venture beyond our collective comfort zone.

Baltimore will progress to its future one way or the other. The defining issue is: what are we, as business, civic and political leaders, willing to envision and to accomplish in order to shape that future and for the city to fully realize its potential for economic growth?

Perhaps the most important lesson of all to take away from the inaugural Grand Prix experience is this: Healthy skepticism is a necessary and welcomed element in the decision-making process. But it’s important not to allow ourselves to succumb to debilitating cynicism.

Let’s keep that in mind the next time a unique opportunity comes our way and not allow ourselves to be stymied by those that can’t dream of new experiences.

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