By Michael Bradley
Special to Delaware Business Times
On a normal late-spring Saturday, Chelsea Tavern’s patio is a comfortable place to enjoy brunch or other refreshments. Patrons gather for casual dining and a comfortable weekend repast. And no fighting.
That behavior is reserved for the May weekend, when the Wilmington Grand Prix cranks to life, and the Tavern’s spot at the start/finish line becomes some of the city’s most coveted real estate. And there are times when it might be appropriate for a referee to be on hand, in case the punches start flying.
“People have gone to fisticuffs for our patio,” said Joe Van Horn, owner of the Chelsea Tavern. “I have broken up fights before. That’s how crazy it gets on our patio when people want tables.”
Wilmington officials and gendarmes don’t want one of the city’s premier sporting events to devolve into Fight Club, but businesses like Van Horn’s certainly appreciate the big crowds that flock downtown to enjoy the competition and to take advantage of the shops, restaurants and bars that surround the course, which is bordered by 5th and 11th streets and Market and King streets — with a spur around the Court House.
According to race organizers, the 2016 Grand Prix generated $650,137 in economic impact, part of a $3 million boost to local businesses since 2012. Given the clear weather and large crowds that prevailed on May 20, another bonanza was in store for folks like Van Horn this year. He estimates that on a normal Grand Prix Saturday, Chelsea’s brunch and early afternoon take will increase fourfold.
“When it comes to race day, it’s like pizza,” Van Horn said. “Even a bad race day is still good for us.”
The Grand Prix has its roots in the Tour DuPont, which ran from 1984-96 in Wilmington and featured some of the world’s top riders, including Lance Armstrong. The 2017 Grand Prix was the 11th, and it brings a weekend of events to Wilmington, with a time trial on Monkey Hill on Friday, the main competition Saturday and a pair of longer rides Sunday. Riders and spectators from 30 states and 11 countries participate during the weekend events, assuring an influx of outsiders to the area who must eat, drink and sleep in Wilmington businesses. A large roster of sponsors supports the Grand Prix and benefit from the exposure provided by the media coverage and the tourists and fans that view the weekend’s events.
“I’m thankful to the organizers to give us the opportunity to showcase the downtown,” said Marty Hageman, executive director of Downtown Visions, which is committed to improving the business climate in Wilmington. “Food and beverage institutions downtown see a gigantic increase in sales on the day of the race.”
Other businesses benefit from the large crowds. One is the Doubletree Hotel, which offers a block of rooms to racers, team support members and fans. General Manager Bob Krol reports that the hotel has “high occupancy” the weekend of the Grand Prix and that the hotel’s ancillary features, such as the restaurant and bar, do good business as a result of the increased number of guests.
“It’s great for the hotel,” Krol said. “We’re glad to have the race. I would suspect that if people have a good time in Wilmington at the race, they will come back and visit the area.”