Baltimore bid to host Volvo Ocean Race in final review

Event officials to visit Monday for city tour and meeting with organizers

January 10, 2013|By Candy Thomson and Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun

Volvo Ocean Race officials will visit Baltimore on Monday to evaluate a bid to host the only U.S. stop of the 2014-2015 edition of the round-the-world contest known as the Super Bowl of sailing.

Volvo officials are expected to begin announcing the ports along the route next week. Announcements will continue into February.

"I really believe we're going to win this thing," said Rob Housman, an executive director of Ocean Racing USA, the private-sector bidder. "The success of Sailabration last summer shows Baltimore knows how to do fantastic water events."

Baltimore, which has hosted the race three times, is in a pool of about 30 finalists to be one of about 10 stopovers. The Volvo evaluation team will tour the city, meet with officials and be briefed by the bid team, Housman said. Newport, R.I., the only other U.S. city under consideration, will be visited by Volvo officials on Tuesday.

A successful bid to host the race would likely cost significantly more than the $2.3 million it cost the last time the race called on Baltimore in 2006.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said he believes Baltimore has "a real solid shot" at getting picked.

"It's very important to the state. The Volvo Ocean Race is a huge attraction," O'Malley said. "It's important jobs. It's important for economic development, for Maryland's long-term tourism sector because there are people who might visit us for the Volvo Ocean Race and then come back again and again."

The city played host to the race in 1997-98, when it was called the Whitbread, and again in 2001-2002 and 2005-2006. Political and civic leaders embraced it as both a crowd pleaser and a financial force.

The last two-week visit attracted 350,000 daily visitors to the Baltimore Waterfront Festival in the Inner Harbor and generated $40 million in local economic impact, according to Ocean Race Chesapeake, the local organizing committee.

More than 3,500 boats gathered under the Bay Bridge and 40,000 spectators stood on the span to watch the restart of the race as the yachts sprinted to New York City for a brief pit stop before sailing for Europe and the finish line.

But Maryland lost the prize in the lead-up to the 2008-2009 race, when it could not meet one of the conditions: finding a sponsor willing to pay $20 million to build and race a boat. Boston, with the backing of athletic clothing company Puma, got a boat and a stopover.

For the 2011-2012 race, Volvo organizers chose a Miami stop, which the editors at Sailing World magazine dubbed "a vast expanse of concrete encircled by elaborate sponsor pavilions, but experienced by hardly a soul."

Last year, Ocean Racing USA, based in downtown Washington, D.C., decided to enter the bidding. Ocean Racing is collaborating with WorldSport South Africa, the manager of the 2011-2012 stopovers in Cape Town and in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

"The city wants the race back," Housman said of Baltimore. "There's a hunger for it. It's a great brand."

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sent a letter in December to Knut Frostad, the longtime yachtsman who serves as Volvo's CEO, outlining that the city would allow free use of its Inner Harbor property, which is customary with large events. A fee for municipal services such as police coverage and trash removal would be negotiated at a later date, the letter said.

Rawlings-Blake named the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts as the liaison with Volvo; Executive Director Bill Gilmore was in New York on Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, said planning for the event has been unique because the idea to bring it back did not start with the city. Officials were approached six or seven months ago by the racing partnership and, won over by the group's previous experience organizing Volvo Ocean Race events, began negotiations.

"This can bring hundreds of thousands of people to the city," Noonan said. "It's a natural as far as building off the success of Sailabration. … This is the only U.S. stop so we'll draw those interested in sailing from across the country."

Baltimore will host the finale of the War of 1812 commemoration in September 2014 — including the return of tall ships and naval vessels — and the Volvo stopover would follow in the spring of 2015.

Noonan said support personnel for the event would require 20,000 hotel room nights during the two-week event, and that downtown would benefit from a carnival-like atmosphere taking over the Inner Harbor.

That's not to say there aren't pitfalls. The race committee in Galway, Ireland — the finish line last July — was left with $483,000 in debts, and performers and businesses went unpaid. Miami organizers who signed a contract with Sony Entertainment to put on several major headliner concerts during its stopover lost the deal when it could not find sponsors to pay for the concerts.

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