Little Rhody’s Big Fumble

When Rhode Island re-joined the host city competition for the 34th America’s Cup, this sailor stepped up to help. Unfortunately, the state couldn’t close the deal. "Gaining Bearing" from our March 2011 issue.

Sailing World

Belle Mer

Employees of Belle Mer, a waterfront event facility in Newport, were among those who rallied to support the city’s bid to host the America’s Cup.Kara DiCamillo/NewportPatch.com

December was a crazy month. In addition to the holidays and my responsibilities with PUMA Ocean Racing, I was also involved with Rhode Island’s bid to host the 34th America’s Cup. I decided to lend a hand to this effort because I was sick of reading about the financial woes of my home state every morning when I retrieved the_ Providence Journal_ from the end of my driveway. The Cup match was the golden goose that this state desperately needed, and it was time to take a stand. I have nothing against San Francisco, which remains one of my all-time favorite places to sail and will be a great place to host the Cup.

What an interesting ride it was for the smallest state in the union. Rhode Island has the history to warrant consideration for the next America’s Cup. But what about the necessary infrastructure and commercial attributes? That is what it takes now. Sailing is becoming big business, and the world is taking notice that large racing events bring in big bucks.

Just look at the sponsors who are entering and staying in the game. Our Volvo Ocean Race campaign is the largest marketing expenditure in PUMA history. Considered one of sports “Big 3” along with Nike and Adidas, PUMA has its tentacles into all kinds of sports. But it chose the Volvo Ocean Race as its frontline global marketing event.

Rhode Island made a big push to bring to Newport the only North American stopover for the 2011-’12 Volvo Ocean Race. I was not too involved in this effort. PUMA didn’t want to jump into the fray; either Miami or Newport would’ve been fine from its perspective.

WayPoint Rhode Island, a nonprofit group set up to handle the bid, asked the state government for assistance with public land and a simple financial guarantee. The pitch was simple: A VOR stopover has a proven track record of generating a cash influx of $50 to 75 million. And this would be in May, before the summer tourism season ramped up.

And what was the state’s response? “Here is a bit of land, but don’t ask for money.” No one in the state’s political hierarchy could see that a small investment would generate a large return.

The end result: The Volvo Ocean Race said, "Thanks, but no thanks, Newport. Miami, here we come." And another depressing story in the Providence Journal.

The natural attributes of Newport and Rhode Island—the history, the marine infrastructure, the large boating population— appeal to these international events. But that isn’t enough. Sailing events can be massive money producers for local economies. Wooing them often requires an upfront cash investment or, at least, a low-cost, high-quality facility to host the event.

Those can be hard to find in the United States. Tourism may be the fourth largest revenue producer in Rhode Island. But it has always been a struggle to get the government officials to see that the perceived “rich man’s sport” is a cash cow for the average taxpayers of the state.

A few months afer losing the Volvo stopover bid, along came the America’s Cup. Rhode Island was an early entrant in the venue selection sweepstakes, but was dropped from contention last July when Oracle Racing anointed San Francisco as the lone U.S. candidate city.

Little Rhody was brought back into the discussion in early December when the negotiations between Oracle Racing and San Francisco hit a snag. This set up an amazing round of fairly public site visits and negotiations culminating in a lastminute announcement on Dec. 31, 2010, that the Cup would in fact be held on San Francisco Bay afer all.

There is a lot of speculation that Rhode Island was brought into the conversation primarily to pressure San Francisco into offering a more lucrative deal. I believe Oracle Racing was 100-percent sincere in its intentions to host the Cup in Newport. Otherwise, why would its representatives have made a final call with 36 hours to go. It was like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”: “Rhode Island, is this your final answer?”

So why didn’t this happen for Rhode Island? Complicated politics and poor timing.

Oracle Racing negotiated with members of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation for the rights to use Newport’s Fort Adams State Park— most famous for hosting the city’s annual folk and jazz festivals—and new infrastructure needed to host an event of this magnitude.

The deal was headed in the right direction, but we sailed into a perfect political storm between two administrations. Neither wanted to bind the state to a significant commitment. The outgoing Governor publicly deffered to the incoming administration. The then-Governor-elect felt he didn’t have the authority because he wouldn’t be sworn into office until Jan. 4, four days afer the deadline for making a decision. And the new administration wanted to conduct its own analysis of the cost of improving Fort Adams State Park.

I also believe the incoming administration overvalued the Cup’s historic connection to Newport and the state’s willingness to fully embrace the event.

This is the same sort of thinking that cost the state the Volvo stopover; the assumption that Rhode Island was the chosen one for sailing events. In this day and age, these are business decisions.

The ultimate loser, of course, is the populace of Rhode Island, which desperately needed the purported 8,000 new jobs, and the $1.1 billion estimated cash influx. Not to mention the Ocean State could’ve used the moral boost that would have come from knowing it could compete with the big guys, and win.

Is there a silver lining for all of this? I think so. The Volvo stopover bid started the ball rolling, and the America’s Cup venue selection process has given it a huge push. Rhode Island politicians are beginning to understand that sailing is a lot more than stuffy blue blazers and chilled champagne. A major sailing event can provide a huge boost to local and regional economies.

Fort Adams may still be renovated because of this realization. In the no-tso-distant future, big marine events will hopefully be able to find a home in Rhode Island without having to cut through so much red tape. And sailing will be the winner as more people in the world are exposed to our major events in San Francisco and Newport and other cities around the country.

But that doesn’t make this missed opportunity any easier to swallow. Sure, I am a homer. Sorry San Francisco, but that’s just the way it is. I just need a story with a happy ending in the _Providence Journal _one of these days.