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For economic returns and jobs, TV zooms past the Grand Prix

Comparing the region’s booming TV film industry with the Grand Prix.

Above: Lights, camera, action and JOBS! Crews set up in Charles Village for HBO’s political satire “Veep.”

Now here’s a plotline:

A downtrodden city gets a reputation as a good low-budget place to film political dramas and several are set there, focusing on the cupidity, foibles and venal schemes of politicians. Soon, though, it becomes clear that the film business yields more jobs and economic benefit than an actual scheme hyped by the city’s real-life leaders.

Another Hollywood fantasy? Not if you place Baltimore in the role of “downtrodden city” and substitute Grand Prix for “scheme.”

Then you have a “ripped from the headlines” narrative.

“This is not a dream,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared, when she announced the city’s agreement to host a Grand Prix race last September. “This race is a game-changer for Baltimore, and it will change the way the world sees our city.”

Perhaps not in the way she intended.

As her administration last week scrambled to find a new race promoter – in the wake of the spectacular crash and burn of Baltimore Racing Development – the announcement that a third Hollywood TV show would be filmed in Baltimore offered an ironic counterpoint to the motor race debacle.

In a release quoting no less a figure than Gov. Martin O’Malley, the Maryland Film Office estimated that Netflix’s House of Cards miniseries, to be filmed in Baltimore and starring Kevin Spacey, will generate 2,000 jobs and have a $75 million economic impact for the region.

That’s on top of the estimated $55 million in economic impact and more than 1,000 jobs that came from HBO’s political satire Veep, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and the made-for-tv movie Game Change, a reenactment of the 2008 presidential election starring Julianne Moore and Ed Harris. Both were filmed in and around Baltimore last year and are scheduled to premier this spring.

The economic returns are based “on the projected budgets of the films and the local spend,” according to Jack Gerbes, director of the film office, plus a 2.1 multiplier effect. The employment figures include high-paying union jobs (teamsters, film technicians, carpenters, makeup artists, gaffers) and individuals hired to supply the broad range of goods and services needed for big-ticket Hollywood productions.

Even accounting for the Hollywood “fudge factor,” these are high numbers.

Unpaid Bills and Taxes

Contrast this to the Grand Prix. Rawlings-Blake last week defended the race by telling WBAL’s 98 Rock with Mickey, Amelia and Speigel that “the city raised almost $50 million in economic activity on a weekend that is usually a pretty dry or slow weekend.”

But her figure – based on a somewhat dubious report commissioned by the city’s tourism bureau – is already out-of-date.

The $46.9 million claimed as total direct and indirect “business volume impact” from the race includes $12 million that BRD has not yet paid to vendors and city and state governments. (The city alone is owed almost $2 million in taxes and fees from the promoters.)

So, at best, the Grand Prix generated about $34.9 million in hotel rooms booked; food and drink consumed by spectators; posters and earplugs sold by vendors, etc.

And even this is too high, according to two academic researchers, because downtown Baltimore does not simply shut down during Labor Day weekends.

UMBC economist Dennis Coates and Michael T. Friedman of the University of Maryland said $10 million would have been spent anyway in hotel bookings, food, drink, etc., if the event were not held.

That would place the economic impact of the race at about $25 million.

But Where Are The Jobs?

It is in the realm of employment where Grand Prix reality has most clearly failed to match Grand Prix hype.

In response to criticism by mayoral challengers last August that her spending priorities were skewed, Rawlings-Blake told radio host Marc Steiner that the Grand Prix “is about jobs and economic development to me.”

Forward Analytics, the Pittsburgh researchers who authored the city’s report, said BRD employed 18 local persons during the race. Few of these people remain employed, and the company is currently without a CEO or chief operating officer.

The researchers calculated that 255 full-time-equivalent jobs “were attributable to the annual Grand Prix.” This, however, is not a hard number, but a conjecture based on the group’s input/output economic impact modeling software.

The research firm, in fact, did not identify any actual jobs created by the three-day Grand Prix. Instead, it speculated that “impacted industries may include hospitality/service, construction, retail, transportation, etc.”

The bottom line is that unless the Grand Prix becomes part of a full-time operation (an institute of advanced auto engineering?) the race will never be more than a generator of temporary jobs – an event where spectators spend money for a few hours or even days and then go home.

Baltimore’s budding Hollywood connection, on the other hand, holds the promise of creating a full-time industry. The local crews who finished up Veep last month are transitioning into House of Cards, which has started pre-production. If Veep is a success, its producers plan to film in Baltimore and Columbia next fall.

Work for 672 Businesses

Filmmaking has some other intrinsic advantages over street racing.

It’s light on infrastructure costs – no spectator stands, heavy guard barriers, tree cutting or expensive road repairs – and it spreads work around to many different employment groups and even sections of the city. (Veep, for example, was filmed in Charles Village, Remington and Mount Vernon, to mimic Washington’s Capitol Hill and Georgetown.)

“This business is very job intensive,” said Gerbes, noting that the final season of David Simon’s The Wire created work for 672 Maryland businesses.

The state attracted the three TV series both because of the attractiveness of Baltimore as a stand-in for Washington and because of tax credits passed by the General Assembly last year. A film production company is now able to receive up to a 25% refund on the direct costs of movie-making, with a total of $7.5 million available among film companies per year.

To prepare for the Grand Prix, the city allocated $7.75 million in road funds for the racecourse, awarding the contract to politically-active paver P. Flanigan & Sons.

Another $1 million was spent by the city for policing, fire protection and other services.

Grand Prix: The Movie

If that sounds like a disaster film, perhaps it needs to be one in a literal sense. How about Hollywood films a movie about the Baltimore Grand Prix, here in Baltimore of course? Imagine the City Hall intrigue! Front office romance! Backroom deals! Car chases! UnderArmour product placement!

Think of all the expenses we could recoup from the filmmakers, all the Jersey barriers and chain link we could bill ’em for.

Baltimore wouldn’t mind as long as their checks don’t bounce and they don’t cut down any trees.

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