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Five years before he died last February at age 91, I got a chance to speak with Hal "Snake" Perry, an ebullient retired foreign-service agent who, during the 1920s and '30s, had been a bike racer. After he'd showed off his collection of carefully restored 1920s and '30s track bicycles, Perry directed me to his living room couch, sat beside me, and opened a faded box containing dried, but still vibrantly colored, race programs illustrated in the art deco style. They depicted six-day bike races at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939, at San Francisco Civic Auditorium in 1937, at S.F.'s Dreamland Auditorium in 1935, and at Los Angeles' WinterGarden Auditorium in 1932.
Perry, in his gentle, excitable way, was sharing with me a glimpse of the brief period from the turn of the last century until World War II when bicycle racing was San Francisco's, and America's, king of sports. The most popular event was the six-day team race, wherein one member of a two-man squad competed while the other rested. Velodromes pocked the country like moon craters; racers earned thrice the salaries of baseballers; and a continent away, Broadway starlets and Wall Street tycoons vied for trackside seats at Madison Square Garden.
Perry, who earned his serpentine nickname for his habit of sneaking around to win at the last minute, recalled that the biggest race he competed in was a 1932 event at L.A.'s WinterGarden. Perry and his teammate, Douglas Barker, were badly outclassed. They dropped out three days before the competition ended, picked up their intermediate sprint winnings from the promoter, and went home. They later learned they were the only ones who got paid.
"Just before the race was to end the promoters skipped town with the gate," Perry said. "Bike race promoters in those days were known as a shifty crowd."
To this day, Perry's adage sometimes holds true: Bike race promoters still can seem as shifty as a rear derailleur during a Tour de France mountain stage. Last week, for instance, San Francisco Supervisors Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin lashed out at Mayor Willie Brown for his decision to forgive a $350,000 loan to a bike race promoter who had apparently been stiffing the city of just about $350K for police overtime related to the race. Daly's asked the city attorney to investigate.
But Hal Perry's old S.F. bike race programs also illustrate another reality: Bike racing impresarios of the 20th century's early decades enriched San Francisco's economic, civic, and cultural life, and today the race that's the subject of this latest City Hall squabble -- the San Francisco Grand Prix -- stands to be some help in pumping up the city's 3-year-old economic flat tire.
In two short years, the S.F. Grand Prix has become the Western Hemisphere's biggest single-day event in cycling, the world's largest sport in terms of live spectators. The event attracts 50,000 course-side fans, receives live coverage on television, and has attained real status within the cycling world; it's one of only two non-European events attended by four-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.
Thousands of the Grand Prix spectators stay in city hotels and eat at city restaurants. The event's television images, broadcast worldwide, depict the city as host to one of the most prestigious events in global sport. It's the type of publicity no amount of money could buy.
As an economic-development initiative, having the city pay for the police overtime required to staff the Grand Prix is a smart governance no-brainer. And in criticizing the mayor for making such an investment, the "progressive" majority of city supervisors has exposed its huge collective blind spot in regard to the government's proper role in promoting economic development.
The bike race is just one tiny example of these supervisors' chronic inability to tell good economic-stimulus policies from bad. Rather than try to judge what would and would not improve the city's economic vitality, they've adopted a consistent anti-business and anti-jobs posture that's particularly harmful during economic hard times. Whether the issue is overly restrictive commercial zoning controls, the absence of concerted city efforts to lure businesses downtown, the failure to build new worker housing, the inability to properly exploit the port, or the lack of attention to regenerating a sclerotic tourism industry, these politicians have adopted a stance that says: "Other cities may need to take an active role in keeping and generating jobs; San Francisco does not."
In San Francisco, liberal pols find it all too politically easy to cloak an anti-jobs attitude in good-government trappings, because the city has such a rich history of bungled economic-development projects. Indeed, the city's pulled more boners in the name of economic development than might be found in a boy's dormitory on prom night's eve. Pick a city block, a government department, or an industrial sector, and there's been a public-private partnership boondoggle in the not-too-distant past. Each of these useless projects creates a potential excuse for recusing the government from its rightful role in encouraging the creation of private-sector jobs. But there is a rightful role.