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Some Tempers Revved Up Over D.C. Auto Race

Unlike the Event, Planning Too Quiet, NE Residents Say

By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 13, 2002; Page A01

Two years of quiet negotiations paid off last July, when the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams signed a 10-year deal that will bring Grand Prix auto racing to the District and then predicted that the event could pump an estimated $350 million into the local economy.

But in Kingman Park, the neighborhood in Northeast Washington where a temporary track is now being built, news of the race did not arrive until about a month before the city sealed the deal. Angry residents believe the plans were concealed until the last possible moment, ensuring that there would be no community opposition to a three-day annual event that will bring 200 high-powered race cars within 50 yards of some homes.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams signed a 10-year deal that will bring Grand Prix auto racing to the District and then predicted that the event could pump an estimated $350 million into the local economy. (Sarah L. Voisin - The Post)

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The debut of the Cadillac Grand Prix of Washington, D.C., which will be held July 19-21 on two parking lots at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, is one of several high-profile projects the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission has aggressively pursued. The commission is a quasi-independent arm of the D.C. government wholly funded by revenue from events it puts on, and its work has been hailed by Williams as proof that the nation's capital under his stewardship has become a world-class city that can host world-class events.

The arrival of the race does just that: Washington is listed as a city on an international racing circuit. But the process that brought the attraction to Washington has been far less public, as Kingman Park and nearby communities such as River Terrace are finding out, since the sports commission negotiates its deals in private and is not compelled to provide details.

As a sporting event, the race is driven in part by marketing. The sports commission has said the event will generate $35 million to $40 million a year. But that figure comes from loose calculations based on estimates and assumptions. Long Beach, Calif., Miami and Detroit, vastly different cities that have hosted similar races, have used virtually the same ranges for the economic benefits they say come from their auto events. Denver says its new event will generate about $30 million for the economy.

Robert D. Goldwater, president and executive director of the District's sports commission, said estimates of the economic impact for Washington came from the promoters. But they, in turn, said the figures were given to them by the marketing firm IMG Worldwide. IMG said it received the numbers from the Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau based on that city's annual race. However, the Cleveland agency said IMG had actually done the calculation.

Mike Sanders, senior assistant for economic development to the mayor of Long Beach, said: "I don't think anybody could possibly know to any degree of detail [the economic impact] without doing a broad survey. And how would you do that?"

The only financial data of which the sports commission is certain is its share of the costs for building the track and making repairs to the parking lots, the rent it will receive for use of the lots, RFK and the D.C. Armory, and the percentage of concession and merchandise sales it will collect.

Goldwater said constructing the course and other lot work will cost more than $3 million, which will be roughly split with the Grand Prix. Goldwater declined to disclose the rest of the financial data, calling it proprietary. Race officials also declined to release figures.

But for those living in Kingman Park, the Grand Prix has less to do with money and all to do with having no input in an event they say will adversely affect the quality of life in a neighborhood that is home to a large elderly population. Residents say they are bracing for loud and continuous engine noise, car exhaust exacerbated by summer heat, possible damaging runoff into the nearby Anacostia River and heavy trash from an event with the capacity to accommodate up to 40,000 fans a day.

"It is being rammed down our throats. There has never been anything even close to this at RFK," said Frazer Walton, president of the Kingman Park Civic Association. "There are health issues, environmental issues and safety issues. The way the city has handled this is undignified and should not be permitted."

Representatives of the sports commission and the Grand Prix first presented details of the event to community groups in June last year, about a month before the deal was struck and a year after the city entered into a memorandum of understanding with National Grand Prix Holdings LLC, the North Carolina-based company organizing the Washington race.

The decision to go public in June with certain specifics of the D.C. event, which is to include five races and a rock concert at RFK, came about two years after organizer Christopher J. Lencheski talked with the sports commission about possibly bringing the race to Washington and then formed the Grand Prix company to promote auto racing in the District.

Goldwater said that he did not conceal the event from the surrounding communities and that he informed residents as soon as it was apparent in May last year that the commission and Grand Prix officials were moving toward a final agreement.

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