Skift Take

A billion in visitor spending for a boat race? Really? There are events, and there are "events" -- like a World Series or Final Four -- that drive real visitors. A boat chase featuring ships sponsored by watch companies and owned by billionaires is not in the latter groups.

So much for smooth sailing. With less than three months before the start of the America’s Cup races in San Francisco Bay, locals are lining up lawyers, insisting on written contracts about concert hours and signing petitions to shame Larry Ellison into covering the city’s bills.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos, a ready critic of sailing’s Super Bowl, made international headlines when he said he felt “(expletive) played.”

The backlash is sending America’s Cup organizers scrambling to explain themselves at community meetings and forcing them to make concessions while in the final planning stages for the international sporting event that will be in San Francisco this summer for the first time.

“People are talking about the demise of the event that’s three months from happening,” said Jane Sullivan, San Francisco’s liaison with the America’s Cup. The same thing happened in London before the Olympics, she said, and “it ended up being a huge event and everyone was happy.”

Still, the uneasy relationship played out in an awkward exchange this month between America’s Cup Event Authority CEO Stephen Barclay and Jon Golinger, the head of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers whose members overlook Piers 27 to 29 where a temporary concert pavilion is being built. Barclay had just described to the media plans for 50 days of racing and an outdoor concert series when he came upon Golinger, venting concerns to a reporter.

Extending his hand with a broad smile, Barclay encouraged Golinger to mention all the compromises the Cup has made: reducing the number of concerts, improving traffic flow. “We’re working really hard,” Barclay said, laughing uneasily, “and you love us dearly, right?”

“Uh,” Golinger stammered, “I’d leave out the last line.”

The America’s Cup hasn’t been feeling the love lately.

But really, Barclay shouldn’t be surprised. San Francisco is a city steeped in strident opinions, a place where critics once lambasted what became the landmark, pyramid-shaped Transamerica building, pooh-poohed the planned Transbay Terminal and are trying to put the kibosh on the Golden State Warriors move across the bay to the city.

America’s Cup folks aren’t being treated any differently. Promoters first promised more than a dozen international boats would come to the Bay Area to face Ellison’s Oracle Racing (only three are coming), that the city would reap more than $1 billion in economic rewards (that has been downgraded to less than $1 billion) and that a group of San Francisco’s “who’s who” would raise $32 million in private money to help defer the city’s costs (less than half that has been raised).

A recent column in SF Weekly — an alternative newspaper that printed Avalos’ F-bomb — calls the America’s Cup “the incredible shrinking regatta.”

Avalos has since held public meetings, inviting Cup officials to explain themselves. He also explained his own curse-laden comment that made headlines in France’s Le Monde newspaper.

“When I feel the trust has been broken, I get upset and say I’ve been played,” Avalos said in a recent interview. Early on, “when it came to getting approval, they would say whatever they needed to say to get members of the board of supervisors like myself to go along.”

As he told the weekly in February, “I am totally (expletive) ashamed.”

Event organizers say there is nothing to be ashamed about. The America’s Cup will bring scores of new visitors to San Francisco who will be able to watch the boats racing within spitting distance of the shoreline. The Cup has already been a catalyst for the city to make long-awaited improvements to the waterfront, including upgrading dilapidated piers into parks and open space and building a new cruise ship terminal. And while the city’s general fund may not profit from the event, the impact will be a wash with the combination of private donations and new tax revenues, organizers say.

“Rather than oversold, its quite the opposite,” Barclay said. “It’s clearly been undersold. It will not cost the city anything, yet the city will receive a billion dollars and 6,000 jobs.”

Downscaling the event also means the city’s expenses for things like police overtime, extra Muni buses and other costs will drop, too, to about $23 million. But fundraising to cover those costs has been sluggish. Only $6 million in private donations has been raised, even with an impressive list of committee members, including venture capitalist Tom Perkins, former Secretary of State George Shultz, the eponymous Charles Schwab, Intel CEO Paul Otellini, and San Francisco philanthropist Diane Wilsey. The Event Authority has contributed another $8 million.

Former supervisor Aaron Peskin, who launched the online petition to goad Ellison into making up the difference, suggested that “the normal philanthropic givers aren’t really interested in defraying the hobby costs of the third richest man in America.”

But Kyrie McClellan, head of the organizing committee raising the private money, counters that her group is made up of “civic mothers and fathers of the Bay Area who are incredibly proud that San Francisco has the wherewithal to prepare for and host this event.”

The event will be spectacular, she said, and the improvements made to the waterfront will endure.

“I do take issue with the notion that we haven’t succeeded because, from where I’m standing,” McClellan said, “San Francisco is already the winner and the starting gun hasn’t even gone off.”

(c)2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services. 


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Tags: events, san francisco

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