Baltimore officials try to woo Volvo race organizers

Bid evaluation team received briefings, tour during whirlwind visit

January 15, 2013|By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

Volvo Ocean Race officials were whisked to the top of the World Trade Center, honored as guests at a reception and squired to the grassy expanse of Fort McHenry during a 24-hour courtship meant to seal the deal to make Baltimore the event's only U.S. port of call in 2015.

"I think they wanted validation on some things, and I think we delivered," Terry Hasseltine, executive director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing, said Tuesday of the previous day's visit. "We had an open dialogue, and I think it was conveyed to them loud and clear that we have a dynamic team in place."

The bid evaluators spent Tuesday touring Newport, R.I., the only other U.S. city being considered, which bills itself as the Sailing Capital of the World. Next week, Volvo is expected to begin announcing the 10 winning ports in a process that will last until mid-February.

The evaluation team, including Tom Touber, the Volvo race's chief operating officer, and Jack Lloyd, the race director, met with Baltimore and state economic development and tourism officials and members of Ocean Racing USA, the bidders.

They toured a city that most of them had not seen since the 2005-2006 event, the last time the around-the-world race came calling. Much has changed.

Harbor East rises from the waterfront with hotels, restaurants and shops. Temporary docking areas near Rash Field are permanent and upgraded. There's been a turnover in the political leadership of the city and state. Sailabration, the first chapter in the commemoration of the War of 1812 last summer, was deemed a huge success, attracting more than 1.5 million people and having an estimated economic impact of $166 million.

"Sailabration has enormous weight, enormous credibility," said Rob Housman, a director of Ocean Racing USA. "We moved the ball 10 yards, but the city and state moved the ball 50 yards in terms of connecting people and a sense of place."

Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the city's point agency on the race, said the purpose of his presentation to the group was to prove "we know what we're doing. We've done this three times. We were the stopover that provided huge crowds."

He said Touber, who managed the 2005-2006 winning yacht ABN AMRO, "has a unique perspective. He knows what it's like to come into Baltimore as a competitor. A lot of the things we talked about resonated with him."

The Volvo officials seemed taken with the new development, but also seemed drawn to what defines Baltimore, said Michael Beatty, one of the developers behind Harbor East.

"We have the concrete boxes that any city can replicate. But what we have that they don't are fantastic neighborhoods," he said. "You can visit Little Italy and Federal Hill and Mount Vernon and realize what a walkable city it is. That's our competitive advantage, and we need to exploit that."

Beatty said the exposure would be good for the city and the region, and "the race will get tremendous support from our corporate community."

The picture painted this year is in stark contrast to the last time Volvo officials came calling for the 2011-2012 race, when economic recovery was still a big question mark.

"We looked and said, 'This could be too rich for our blood.' It was the right decision at the time," Hasseltine said. "Putting on a major sailing event was not in the top 10 of priorities at that time. Now, hopefully, there's a change in the winds and the Volvo will return to where it belongs."

Perhaps the biggest hit of the tour came near the end of the day, when the Volvo officials were escorted to Fort McHenry, the proposed spectator viewing area for an in-harbor race between the 65-foot sailboats. Volvo organizers want stunning visuals that instantly identify the location for the international TV audience.

Baltimore, local officials say, is a natural.

"The flag, the fort, the harbor," Hasseltine said. "It doesn't get more Americana than Fort McHenry and the writing of our national anthem."

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