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Towson prepares for crowds along Phelps parade route

By Nick Madigan

September 24, 2008

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It's beginning to sound like a military operation, complete with maps, complex logistics, moving machinery and marchers in uniform.

With plans for the Oct. 4 parade to honor Michael Phelps and other Maryland Olympians rapidly taking shape, what became clear yesterday during a tour of the route is that the event will pretty much bring Towson to a standstill.

That, apparently, is the point.

A Baltimore County spokeswoman who led the tour for reporters and photographers said there would be 53 "pieces" in the parade - including firetrucks, police cars, amphibious "duck" buses, convertibles, floats, marching bands, cheerleader squads, elected officials (lots of those), Phelps' mom, at least two of his former teachers, Uncle Sam in full beard, mascots from the Orioles and the Ravens, a Shriners honor guard and Don Crockett.

Don who?

"He's a local guy who has a skateboarding dog - he's everywhere," said Ellen Kobler, the spokeswoman, who noted that Crockett's sidekick is named Precious II.

Representatives of Pete's Grille have also been invited. "That's where Michael goes for his massive breakfasts," Kobler said, by way of clarification.

For the 3 p.m. parade - which, rain or shine, will precede the Star-Spangled Salute to Michael Phelps at Fort McHenry four hours later - two dozen streets in Towson will be blocked off at their intersections with York Road, on which the procession will travel from Burke Avenue south for 1.3 miles to the Drumcastle Government Building. More than 60 police officers will handle traffic flow.

Operating under the principle of saving the best for last, Phelps will ride at the tail end of the parade, in an open-top Hummer, as he did in a similar parade in Towson after the Olympic Games in Athens four years ago.

"Will we have access to him before the parade?" a journalist asked, hopefully.

"We don't even have access to him," Kobler replied. She said Phelps would not be hanging around either before the parade or afterward. "He'll be out of here," she said, whisked away by his "dignitary protection team."

The swimming champ plans to attend a reception in downtown Baltimore before going to the gathering at Fort McHenry. Interview requests, Kobler said, may be submitted through Octagon, the management agency that handles Phelps' affairs, but she didn't seem to hold out much hope.

Two other swimmers, Jessica Long, who competed in the XIII Summer Paralympics, and Katie Hoff, will also ride in individual vehicles, while the remaining athletes, as many as 16, will wave to the masses from a flatbed truck.

Then there are the politicians: Gov. Martin O'Malley; Rep. Elijah E. Cummings; Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger; Rep. John Sarbanes; U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski; U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin; state Sen. Bobby Zirkin; Del. Stephen W. Lafferty; Nancy S. Grasmick, the Maryland schools superintendent; her Baltimore County counterpart, Joe A. Hairston; Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon; and members of the Baltimore County Council.

"I don't see Jim Smith's name here!" WBAL's chief photographer, Pat Bourque, said as he scanned the list of invitees, referring to Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

"He's not invited!" a county police officer said, to general amusement.

Smith's name was indeed not on the list, but the acronym "CE" was. In fact, Smith will ride alongside O'Malley and Dixon on a "rolling picket-fence stage," Kobler said.

The sheer size of the parade means that officials have had to alert residents and business owners along the route that things are going to be a mite crowded Oct. 4. In addition, planners of two weddings that day in the area have been provided with alternative routes that do not involve York Road.

Parking will be free at four public garages in downtown Towson and at two Towson University garages, and meters on Towson streets will be free from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Events at Fort McHenry will begin at 3 p.m. with music, activities for children and a food court. The official program will begin at 7 p.m., with fireworks at about 7:50 p.m.

Cars will be banned from Fort McHenry that day. Parking will be provided in lots at M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, with free shuttle buses to Fort McHenry. Organizers say that parking reservations may be made in advance, for a "small processing fee," at baltimore.org/phelps