ST. PETERSBURG — Squeezing a 1.8-mile high-speed motor-racing circuit into downtown St. Petersburg inevitably means disruption.
Roads around the Firestone Grand Prix circuit are blocked for several weeks while concrete crash barriers are installed.
Come race weekend, the upheaval intensifies. The revving of 650-horsepower engines becomes the soundtrack for diners along Beach Drive. For the first time this year, the Dali Museum will shut its doors for the three-day event.
But city leaders say there is no question the race, one of the city’s biggest annual events, is a huge economic boon to St. Petersburg and the county.
Race organizers anticipate 130,000 spectators will line the circuit over the three days of the Grand Prix this weekend, with millions more watching live or rebroadcasts in over 200 countries.
Spectators and race crews will book about 27,000 hotel rooms in the area, and the three-hour live broadcast on ABC will provide millions of dollars’ worth of exposure for the city, officials said.
And while the area’s professional sports franchises all use the generic Tampa Bay name, the Grand Prix is all St. Petersburg’s, with the city’s name contractually specified in the race title.
“It’s like an electronic postcard that goes out to so many people on TV,” said Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. “We cannot buy that kind of exposure.”
This year, city and chamber of commerce officials are going to extra lengths to help local businesses cash in on the influx of visitors and try to spread the message that the race does turn the rest of downtown into a no-go zone.
For the first time, the chamber is creating a digital coupon book featuring race-weekend offers from local businesses. The campaign will be promoted via Twitter. So far, 35 businesses, including taxi companies, coffee shops and boutiques, have signed up.
Museums and galleries also are getting in on the promotion, with the city-owned Sunken Gardens offering a buy-one, get-one admission deal, and the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts offering $2 off admission.
“Every promo starts with the first race in St. Petersburg,” Steinocher said. “We’re starting to mature about how we take advantage of the race.”
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The move is an attempt to reverse a drop in non-race downtown visitors, who stay away fearing congestion and a parking nightmare.
On previous race weekends, business at The Moon Under Water, a British-themed pub on Beach Drive, has dropped by about 15 percent, general manager Mark Logan said.
“It really doesn’t do anything for us — it drives people away,” Logan said. “All the business is really on the south side toward Albert Whitted (Airport). People get scared to come downtown.”
Disruption for downtown residents can last the seven weeks it takes to set up and tear down the operation.
That includes 20,000 feet of concrete barriers and 44,000 feet of chain-link fencing. During race weekend, the 1.8-mile street course closes off a circuit around Pioneer Park, the Progress Energy Center for the Arts and the airport’s runways.
The circuit includes the new location of one of downtown St. Petersburg’s main attractions, the Dali Museum, which has struggled to keep visitors coming during race week.
In past years, the museum provided a shuttle service for people determined to visit during the run up to the race.
But on race weekend, the only way to see the classic works of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí was to buy a ticket for the Grand Prix and the museum.
This year, museum leaders decided it was no longer financially viable to stay open, and they plan to use the weekend for staff training.
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But the race provides unique opportunities, too.
This year’s Grand Prix will serve as an introduction to St. Petersburg and nearby beaches for a group of major tour operators from several Latin American countries.
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater’s new Latin American envoy, Ana Fernandez, recently visited Panama City, Panama, where executives with Copa Airlines arranged for its top tourism partner companies to make the trip.
Tourists from large countries such as Brazil frequently visit South Florida, especially Miami, but many have little knowledge of the Tampa area or west coast beaches.
“The Grand Prix is getting a lot of attention. Everybody had questions about it, and they loved the idea,” Fernandez said at a meeting of the Tourist Development Council last week. “We’re going to tour them around and present our destination to them, so that’s great exposure for us.”
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St. Petersburg hasn’t studied the full economic impact of the Grand Prix, but studies of other major events show an influx of visitors brings both dollars and intangible benefits such as increased name recognition, said Dave Goodwin, the city’s planning and economic development director.
“The bigger the event, the bigger those multipliers,” he said. “When it’s international, it’s even bigger.”
Aside from the upheaval, St. Petersburg’s investment is minimal. It provides police, fire and sanitation services up to $150,000. If costs run over, race promoter Green Savoree reimburses the city, as happened two years ago when there was a $20,000 difference.
Pinellas County’s Tourism Development Council last year awarded $250,000 in bed taxes for this year’s race since it meets criteria to qualify as an elite tourism event.
According to Green Savoree’s application, the 2013 race achieved ratings of 388,000 viewers, a 70 percent increase from the previous year. Buyers of race tickets came from 46 states, Canada, Japan and Europe.
For its investment, the tourism council gets a 100-person hospitality tent valued at $30,000, 100 tickets to the race valued at $5,500 and a $25,000 value VIP pit lane suite.
The deal also includes a full-color advertisement in the official race program and track signs with the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater brand and the slogan “America’s best beaches.”
Those signs were on air for 23 minutes during the 2013 race, exposure that would cost almost $600,000, according to the race promoter’s application.
Also, St. Petersburg was talked about for more than two minutes, and almost half an hour of city skyline views were broadcast, calculated to be worth almost $1.8 million in air time.
But the real benefit of millions of people seeing the picturesque backdrop as racecars whiz past the waterfront and harbor may be incalculable, race President Tim Ramsberger said.
“To me, that’s so valuable — promoting the community more than the dome stadium. A dome stadium could be Anywhere, USA,” Ramsberger said. “When they show beautiful downtown St. Petersburg, when people are looking at the waterfront and St. Pete harbor, how do you put a price tag on that?”
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Tribune writer Josh Boatwright contributed to this report.