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At nearby businesses, a rush, then a pause

By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Downtown Deli braced for Grand Prix crowds, staying open an extra day and hiring extra staff. Sunday, the day of the big race, they opened the doors and waited for the rush.

"We're still waiting," said Sara Paulson, watching a quiet register about an hour before race time, with not one customer in the place.

Up and down and around Central Avenue, parking lots were full but restaurants and bars were unexpectedly empty. Race fans came from all over, it seemed, but ticketless locals stayed away. Restaurants missed out on their regular customers, while racegoers spent most of their money at the parking lot and at the track, without stopping in between.

"This race was a gamble for everyone," said Fortunato's Italian Market owner Vincent Fortunato. "But I think the city played the right cards."

Saturday had been busier than usual, most merchants said. Fortunato's expected to come out about 12 percent ahead for the weekend. But the important thing, Fortunato said, is that the out-of-town customers told him again and again they'd be back.

Part of the Sunday slowdown was that the track was selling beer at 9 a.m., while local businesses following a local ordinance had to wait until 1 p.m. At Midtown Sundries, owner Charles Kott looked at the three people sipping soda and iced tea at the bar, then looked at his watch: 12:35 p.m.

About 50 people had walked out because they couldn't buy a beer, Kott said. He is convinced the race is good for the city overall, and his business has been slightly better than normal "but I wouldn't make any tremendous accolades about it," he said.

Parking prices four times the normal rate kept regular customers away, the owners said. But the parking lot attendants had few complaints as lots ranging from $5 to $30 filled easily.

Cars started arriving at 7 a.m. at the $25 lot at Second Street and Second Avenue. Many shifted into reverse when Bethany Gearhart told them the price, but the lot was full well before race time. "About 5 percent pay with a smile," Gearhart said as she waved through a Porsche, a Lincoln and a Mercedes. "Some people are snitty."

At the cheaper parking at Tropicana Field, Deanna Herman said "That's $5, sweetheart," every few seconds as hundreds of people took advantage of bus service to the stadium. The line for the bus was 40 to 50 deep at about 11:45 a.m., and the wait was 10 minutes.

"We're going on the cheap," said Jim Baptist of Seminole, waiting in line with a friend and five boys. Actually, they knew it would not be cheap to feed the boys at the track. But it was their first big car race, and they were excited, so they didn't mind.

"I like the crashing," said Josh Flack, 8, bouncing just a little with excitement.

Other crash-happy fans crowded outside the fence as a car spun out on the turn by Central Avenue. "I knew we'd find a spot to watch for free," said Mark Glantz, who came all the way from Orlando despite not having a ticket, and watched part of the race through a hole in the black tarp.

But like a lot of people drawn by curiosity, he said he'll pony up for a ticket next year. "Definitely," he said. "All three days."

That's the spirit business owners are counting on. They hope the parking improves, the locals come out and the city lets them in on Sunday morning beer profits. They hope that if they wait long enough, maybe until after the race, maybe until next year, the Grand Prix will deliver customers.

"Stuff like this is good for downtown," said Downtown Deli owner Rod Garry, "and in a matter of time it's going to be good for us too."

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