A winner before the starting gun

Race: The America's Cup has brought new luster to Auckland's faded waterfront.

January 07, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Sir Peter Blake now knows exactly how Gen. George Custer felt at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Surrounded by show-no-mercy enemies, all he can do is smooth his straw-colored mustache and get ready for one hell of a fight.

Blake is CEO of Team New Zealand, the beleaguered America's Cup defender. Having won sailing's supreme prize in San Diego in 1995, he and his Team New Zealand now face the daunting task of defending the Cup successfully -- something no other nation outside the United States has ever done.

Already the frenzy of America's Cup activity so far -- 11 challengers from seven nations -- has injected an estimated $2 billion into the not-so-buoyant New Zealand economy.

Around Blake's fortress-like compound on the Auckland waterfront, the six brightly colored battle flags of the surviving four challenger nations are snapping in the northeasterly sea breeze.

To the left are the Stars and Stripes, the rising sun of Japan and the tricolors of Italy and France. To the right, two more American flags. Surrounded he may be, but Blake couldn't be happier.

He knows, come mid-February when the actual America's Cup finals are held, that if Team New Zealand can retain the "Auld Mug," as the America's Cup trophy is often called, the entire country can expect to reap the benefits of a Cup-led recovery.

Even if it's lost and the Cup bubble bursts, the once sleepy city of Auckland will never be quite the same.

The New Zealanders have transformed Auckland's rundown and ramshackle waterfront into a world-class venue.

`International festival'

"When we brought the Cup home from San Diego," Blake says, "we realized that if we were to do it justice we really had to have a magnificent venue, a new yacht harbor, where all the boats, challengers and defender, would be side-by-side as elements in a great international festival.

"It took quite a bit of selling, but now that it is a reality I don't think anyone has any regrets. Without the new yacht harbor, we could never have attracted the number of international challengers that we did.

"We ended up with 11 syndicates from seven nations [six challenger syndicates advanced to the current semifinal round], but if we had done nothing and simply expected people to fend for themselves, we would have been lucky to have had four contenders down here, if that."

Worth the cost

The new infrastructure has cost New Zealand taxpayers about $120 million, but Blake says it's been money well spent.

"It has shifted the focus of the city down to the waterfront," he says. "There is almost complete public access right around the waterfront, so for the first time people can get right down among the action and feel part of it. There are new restaurants and bars and apartments right by the water's edge. It's a great atmosphere.

"Win or lose," he says, "the international publicity, the media exposure the country is getting is priceless. There is a perception that New Zealand is a long way off the beaten track, but now I think people are beginning to realize that the country has so much to offer that it is well worth the effort to get there."

Blake points out that having the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, in September is another powerful incentive for the owners of the multimillion dollar super yachts to come to what he calls "Destination South Pacific."

"We've got a lot of magnificent boats here right now," he says, "but the really big boats, the 95- and 100-meter vessels with two helicopters are still making their way here.

"I get a huge kick out of seeing all that."

The expenditure of taxpayers' dollars does not appear to have added to the burden Blake shoulders in defending the America's Cup.

Benefits will stay

"We don't have to justify anything," he says. "We will do the best we can. No one can ask any more of us than that. If we don't defend successfully, it won't be the end of the world. The benefits for Auckland will remain whatever the outcome.

"There's been $600 million worth of development around the immediate vicinity of the new yacht harbor. That's what I call a decent legacy."

But far more important, as Blake is concerned, is the tremendous boost the America's Cup campaign is giving the national psyche.

Tiny New Zealand, which has just 3.8 million people, has endured a great deal of pain in recent years as successive governments aggressively embraced free market economics, stripping away protective tariff barriers and launching the largely agricultural economy into the brave new world of unfettered global competition.

Intangible benefits, too

The benefits have taken a long time to filter through, and Blake is the first to concede that the country needs a morale boost.

"I would like to see New Zealanders feel good about themselves," he says.

"The state of mind of New Zealanders does need improving, and we hope that's one thing this Cup campaign is achieving."

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