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How Politics, NIMBYism, and a Lack of Foresight Killed the Boston Grand Prix

by Frank Santoroski          @seveng1967

GPBes.phpAs you may have heard by now, the proposed Grand Prix of Boston, a race on the Verizon Indycar Series’ schedule, is now dead in the water.

The “Blame Game” is now in full effect, with both the organizers and the City of Boston throwing one another under the bus. In the meantime, the NIMBY set is more than happy to shoulder the responsibility and claim victory.

Now, if you are unfamiliar with the term, NIMBY is an acronym that translates to ‘Not In My Back Yard.’ It is used to describe local opposition to any development that has the potential to change or disrupt the status quo of the area. The term can refer to opposition of the construction of housing projects, power plants, shopping malls, office buildings, military bases, sports stadiums, landfills or homeless shelters. It can also refer to opposition of major events such as street festivals, parades, the Olympics, or an auto race.

Now, the opposition cannot take all of the credit, as city politics played a major part in the cancellation. The promoter should also bear some responsibility for underestimating the magnitude of making the Grand Prix a reality.

Big city politics can be a tricky course to navigate, and the City of Boston ranks right up there with New York and Chicago for having numerous layers of committees, red tape, zoning laws, environmental agencies, and hoops to jump through. Various government and non-governmental groups need to see their demands met, whether they be financial or otherwise.

In 2004, the International Speedway Corp shelled out 110 million dollars to buy 675 acres on Staten Island with the thought of building a NASCAR oval in New York City. After more then ten years of legal wrangling through city approval processes, political infighting and community opposition, they packed their bags and left.

The Baltimore Grand Prix, held between 2011 and 2013, left promoters owing the city over 12 million in unpaid debt, and left residents with a bad taste in their mouths.

“The Grand Prix of Baltimore, a Labor Day weekend “tradition” that lasted only three years but caused oh so much strife in this city. Traffic jams, steel fences covering downtown’s sidewalks and trees that needed to be cut down to make way for grandstands drew the ire of the populace and businesses. The race itself was troubled from the start with organizers leaving behind a trail of debt and lots of ill will.” Baltimore Business Journal, Aug 27, 2014

Perhaps the Boston Grand Prix Association should have seen the writing on the wall. The announcement for the Grand Prix came in May of 2015. During this time, the opposition groups, No Boston Olympics and No Boston 2024, were vehemently fighting the city’s bid to host the Olympic games. They claimed a victory when the city pulled its bid in July 2015.

Screenshot_2016-04-30-08-23-47The opposition group The Coalition Against Indycar Boston, led by chairman Larry Bishoff, was formed and they set up their own campaign: No IndyCar Boston.

A support group, Friends of IndyCar Boston was put together as well, however the opposition had more resources and a much louder voice.

One of the first moves by No IndyCar Boston was to employ the Boston Law Firm, Lurie Freidman LLP, to draft an eleven page document outlining all of the legal concerns associated with the Grand Prix. The document was released in January, and forwarded to Mayor Martin Walsh, Governor Charles Baker and some thirty other city officials, council members, environmental agencies as well as representatives of the Grand Prix of Boston, LLC.

The first, and most simplistic, argument was that racing on public roads is illegal in Massachusetts. Certainly this law is designed to dissuade teens from drag-racing their tricked-out Kias and Civics down Main Street in the dead of night. However, the wording of the statute does not contain an exemption for a professional race on closed streets.

The document went on to outline several other points, including the lack of a provision for a private ‘for-profit’ developer to utilize public roads, noise levels that exceed the legal limit, the possibility of dislodging hazardous waste that is buried beneath Cypher Street, the need for an environmental review, the diversion of truck traffic, the lack of a specific construction schedule and security plan, and the need to make documents public.

Perhaps the most damning argument was the fact that the city had entered into the license agreement without first holding a public hearing.

“I think they feel this race was plopped down in their lap with no say about it, with no input, and that it was basically a done deal,” said attorney Dave Lurie, who drafted the document.

The first community meeting was held on January 28, 2016, with bi-monthly meetings scheduled thereafter.

In what can only be seen as an ill-conceived plan, Grand Prix organizers took to social media to encourage supporters to attend the February 9th meeting. They offered VIP access to the concerts associated with the weekend to supporters.

This was tantamount to supplying cannon-fodder to the opposition, who accused the organizers of bribing the citizens of the Fort Point area.

As construction details, schedules, and other information became available through these meetings, Lurie drafted another letter, this one to The Department of Energy and Environmental Concerns, with an additional set of concerns from the Coalition Against IndyCar Boston calling for a review from MEPA (The Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act)

Despite the opposition, the Grand Prix seemed to be moving forward and signed a title sponsor, LogMeIn, whose headquarters are located along the proposed Grand Prix circuit. In addition, they gained associate sponsorship from MillerCoors, Delta Airlines, Red Bull, Konica Minolta, and more than 40 other local companies and businesses. The group also lined up alliances with local charitable organizations including Massachusetts Fallen Heroes, The Greater Boston Food Bank, Play Brigade, and Veteran Homestead.

After numerous meetings, both public and private, the Grand Prix looked to be set to go in early April. Documents were signed and filed by the City of Boston, Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and Massachusetts Port Authority. In finalizing these agreements, the promoters promised to shoulder all financial burdens, and not utilize tax-payer dollars.

12-19-Boston-Show-CarWith everything seemingly in place, the ticket office opened as race fans began to purchase tickets and make their travel plans.

“Today’s result is the culmination of a lot of hard work, coordination and leadership from all of the agencies involved”, said Boston GP president, John Casey on April 13. “We would like to thank Governor Baker’s office, Mayor Walsh’s office and all of the city and state agencies and people who worked hard to get this done, with a high level of collaboration.”

Less than a week later, No IndyCar Boston pulled the environment card again throwing yet another cog into the gears. This time, it was the five-person Conservation Commission that had come out of the woodwork to require an additional permit for the Grand Prix to go forward. Recent maps from FEMA, that went into effect in March, have put a portion of the course in a flood-zone area.

In the days following this announcement, it was revealed that there is a potential conflict-of-interest issue brewing with the fact that the PR firm, Rasky Baerlein, is representing both the Grand Prix of Boston and also Boston Mayor Martin Walsh regarding a federal investigation of union strong-arm tactics towards developers.

This proved to be the final straw for John Casey and the Grand Prix of Boston. The endless permitting demands, financial drain, and fierce opposition caused him to call it quits.

“The relationship between us and the city is not working. The relationship is untenable.” said Casey in an interview with the Boston Globe. “I’m writing a book about this whole process. It’s so ridiculous, it’s hysterical.”

A day later, Casey was a bit less kind in his comments to the Boston Herald, “I feel like I got out of an abusive relationship,” said Casey. “We’ve done everything that the city and the state agencies have asked us to do. They made us jump through hoops. If there was any situation where we asked for something back, and we’re not talking about any funding or anything like that, but a concession. The answer was always no.”

“You expect the city and the state to be partners,” Casey added. “There were some people in some agencies who were really good partners. Others were just bullies. I would use the term bully.”

A statement from the Mayor’s office offered this perspective, “The City of Boston will always be open to opportunities that will positively showcase our city, however as we continued to work with Boston Grand Prix they were unwilling or unable to meet the necessary requirements to hold an event of this size. The Mayor feels strongly in protecting the taxpayers and limiting the impact to residents, and we are not shy that we held them to very high standards.”

While Casey has stated that he has two different Plan-B city options, it is unlikely that there is time to get a street race together for the Labor Day date. Additionally, The Grand Prix of Boston. LLC stands to be held liable for a 1.5 million dollar fine for cancelling the event. This is not to mention refunding monies back to fans that have purchased tickets, and fees paid by presenting sponsors. The ugliness has just begun.

IndyCar is left scrambling for another race, and looks to do so, with or without Casey’s involvement. Both Gateway and Watkins Glen have been mentioned as a possibility, but this is merely idle speculation at this point.

Perhaps the Grand Prix of Boston was better off, having never gotten off of the ground and saving a race-day failure. Perhaps the opposition took a good thing, that might have had a lasting economic impact, and pissed it away.

The world will never know.

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