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Best part of Prix for VIPs: It's free

St. Petersburg will hand out 600 race tickets and roll out the red carpet for politicians, developers and executives.

By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- They'll watch the Grand Prix races from the fastest part of the track, dine on steak and shrimp and drink beer and wine.

Politicians, local real estate developers and business executives are getting complimentary tickets to the races and VIP hospitality tent, courtesy of the city.

With 100,000 spectators expected in downtown Friday through Sunday, city officials hope to showcase the city, thank businesses and woo other attractions, such as a cruise line.

"There are lots of folks you'd like to invite to thank them for doing business in the city, and there are a lot of people that you'd like to entice to do business in the city," said Ron Barton, the city's economic development director.

The guest list includes meeting planners and airline and cruise ship representatives, but most of the 600 tickets are going to elected officials, area business and community leaders and their guests. For example, all 24 mayors in Pinellas County have been invited, and foreign officers from MacDill Air Force Base.

City officials say the red carpet treatment is an attempt to dispel the image of St. Petersburg as a sleepy, retirement community.

"Our Grand Prix is nestled right on the waterfront," City Council member John Bryan said. "It shows St. Pete is alive. It's moving a lot faster than the old St. Pete. Maybe that's symbolized by race cars."

The tickets, with a face value of $35 for Saturday and $70 for Sunday, are being provided at no cost to the city by the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The 12-year contract between the parties provides the tickets "for the promotion and development of the city" and cannot be sold.

City officials such as Mayor Rick Baker and the eight council members also are being offered tickets.

St. Petersburg plans on spending $48,500 on marketing, which includes the food and beverage hospitality tent on top of the Bayfront Center parking garage.

Area hotels, Tampa International Airport, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau are providing complimentary lodging and transportation for out-of-town guests.

The airports and convention and visitors bureau also will help with food and beverage costs at the city's hospitality tent, said Anita Treiser, city marketing director. Saturday's lunch is deli sandwiches at $16 per person. Sunday's meal is New York strip steak and skewered shrimp at $25 per person.

"To say you are the site of a major sports event is important to a community," said Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the convention and visitors bureau, which is getting free race tickets. "It's a tremendous image enhancer."

Barton, the city's economic development director, and Rick Mussett, city development administrator, met with staff and came up with a list of 37 corporate executive and clients. A few were offered 10 tickets.

Invited are technology companies like Accenture and Avaya, financial firms like GE Financial and Franklin Templeton and real estate brokers and developers like Coldwell Banker and Opus South.

"A lot of people may ask, 'Why are you thanking or inviting locals? Aren't they already won over?' " Barton said. "That's not the case. Your bread and butter return for your community is going to be the result of existing business expanding where they are."

Opus South just announced plans to develop two downtown condominium towers worth a combined $160-million. "It's a very strong statement about how vibrant the downtown is," said Opus South vice president Jerry Shaw, who will attend the races.

Coming from outside the Tampa Bay area are about 34 people: meeting planners, airline and cruise ship executives and media.

Council member Bryan is hoping the presence of Michele Paige, president of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association, will pay off. The trade association represents 13 cruise lines. Bryan has been pushing the idea of a large ship anchoring a mile off downtown St. Petersburg, then sending passengers ashore in small boats.

"What we want to do is change the image," Bryan said. "We want them to realize St. Pete is a great place to bring a cruise ship."

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