Rumson's wealth won it the Dad Vail Regatta

Post date: Nov 19, 2009 4:32:20 PM

The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Patrick Kerkstra and Maya Rao

Inquirer Staff Writers

It was an offer the Dad Vail Regatta could not refuse, and one that the cash-strapped City of Philadelphia could not hope to match: $250,000 in guaranteed donations, and sharply lowered operating costs to boot.

In exchange, the 2010 regatta - the largest collegiate rowing event in the nation - will not take place on the Schuylkill, as it has for the last 55 years, but in the exclusive New Jersey suburb of Rumson, home to Wall Street titans and to stars like Bruce Springsteen and Queen Latifah.

The regatta, which draws about 3,000 collegiate rowers, has long been one of Philadelphia's most prominent athletic events and a major spring tourist attraction.

The sudden loss of such a premier event to a small suburb of New York City has created an uproar, not just in rowing circles but also in City Hall and among local businesses that profit from the regatta. Although the regatta's exile from Philadelphia could be temporary, there is no guarantee it will return soon, or ever.

Dad Vail organizers contend that they had little choice but to move, in part because the city steadily increased their cost of business. They say, too, that the Nutter administration was slow to respond when the nonprofit raised the alarm in late October and warned it might have to leave.

Philadelphia officials argue that the regatta's leaders decided to leave well before even meeting with the city, and they say it was the event's loss of sponsors - not city-related expenses - that led the regatta to seek refuge in Rumson's wealth.

Both sides have legitimate points.

But the regatta is leaving for only one real reason: money. Rumson had it; Philadelphia did not.

"If this was a fiscally neutral decision, we would not leave," said Jack Galloway, the regatta's committee chairman. "Rumson is a very upscale bedroom community of New York City. They have money to throw at the regatta, and we needed it."

The regatta, which is run and organized by a staff of unsalaried volunteers, ran into serious financial problems this year as sponsorships evaporated amid the economic downturn. Saturn, the General Motors subsidiary that is now dissolving, was one of the biggest sponsors to pull out. The tractor manufacturer John Deere was another. In all, sponsorship revenue was down 60 percent over the last two years, Galloway said.

After the 2009 race in May, the nonprofit had run through nearly all its reserve funds. Regatta leaders began quietly exploring alternate sites on rivers from Camden to Florida. Their goal was to find a site that would cost less and offer better local sponsorship opportunities.

"It was clear that if we held the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia in 2010, there would not be a 2011 regatta," regatta vice president Kenneth Shaw said. "We would have exhausted our reserves."

This year, Philadelphia charged the Dad Vail close to $70,000 for the Mother's Day weekend event. That money covered expenses like groundskeeping, emergency medical services, and police, who are needed to shut down busy Kelly Drive.

For the first time in 2009, organizers of many major Philadelphia events - such as the Mummers Parade and six city ethnic parades - were told they must cover the city's costs in light of the economic crisis. That sudden expense led many organizers to scale back or cancel their events.

The Dad Vail Regatta case is different. The rowing nonprofit has long reimbursed the city and Fairmount Park for the public expense of the races. But that bill grew larger every year, Dad Vail officials said, and they had little confidence the city would significantly trim it in the years ahead.

Other cities charge far less for similar services, Dad Vail officials said. Camden, for instance, hosted the annual Frostbite Regatta for the first time last weekend, charging organizers $500 for the race. Last year, when the Frostbite event was held on Boathouse Row, Philadelphia charged more than $6,000, Shaw said.

Nutter administration officials said the city must be sure it recoups its costs, given Philadelphia's tenuous fiscal situation. But they also noted that Dad Vail's economic problems are far larger than the $70,000 city charge, given that the event costs the nonprofit about $500,000 a year.

"I think that the Dad Vail organization faced some challenges this year, and had to make a tough decision. The city-service cost was a part of that decision but not a major reason for it," said City Representative Melanie Johnson, who coordinates special events for the Nutter administration.

By moving to Rumson, the regatta expects not only to pay far less in municipal service fees, but also to collect much more from local donors. Already, $100,000 has been deposited in Dad Vail accounts courtesy of Michael Gooch, a Rumson-area resident who is the chief executive officer of an international brokerage-services group. Rumson officials have promised to come up at least $150,000 more in private money.

Philadelphia's City Hall was likely in no position to match that largesse, but Dad Vail organizers wasted little time finding out for sure.

The regatta committee did not notify the Nutter administration of its fiscal woes and potential move until late October, when it send a letter to the mayor's office and other city officials. That letter, sent by registered mail, was ignored, Galloway said.

The regatta sent a second and more detailed letter Nov. 2, warning the mayor explicitly that its days in Philadelphia were likely numbered. City Hall responded quickly to that letter, setting up a meeting with regatta leaders for Nov. 13.

By then, though, the Dad Vail had all but signed on the dotted line with Rumson. In fact, a report announcing the move appeared in a Rumson-area newspaper called the Two River Times - a publication owned by Gooch, the $100,000 donor - on the very day Dad Vail officials met with the Nutter administration. Yesterday, the paper's Web site announced the regatta would be held May 7-8.

But borough officials did not offer up other details despite calls to them.

Dan Edwards, the Rumson Dad Vail committee chairman, declined repeated requests for information on the event. His only response was a late-afternoon e-mail that read, in part: "Thanks for you interest in Rumson. You're best bet, think is to wait for the mayor to return from out of town and speak with him. . . . I'm sure he will do his best to accommodate you."

An article in Rowing News states that Edwards was a rowing coach at Lower Merion High School and the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr.

Yesterday, though, Galloway insisted that Mayor Nutter could have kept the Dad Vail in Philadelphia had he promptly and enthusiastically responded to the request for help, and had he made a commitment to devote capital funds to the regatta site.

"I was looking for him to say we have every intention of helping you get the sponsors you need. That we're going to limit your costs. To say that the [regatta facilities] are a little ragged and we're going to spruce it up, not just for the Dad Vail but the other regattas and all the other events," Galloway said. "I certainly would have thought we'd get a response like that."

Given the city's dismal fiscal condition - Nutter has, in the last year, closed a $2.4 billion long-term budget deficit through tax hikes and sharp spending cuts - Galloway's expectations may well have been unrealistic.

Certainly, City Hall was unlikely to muster anything resembling Rumson's offer, even if it had more time to respond. With just 7,200 residents, Rumson is one of the 100 wealthiest communities in the nation, just below Malibu, Calif., and Greenwich, Conn., in median personal income, according to U.S. census figures.

"We were never given a chance to compete with Rumson. But say we had the opportunity; I don't know where Philadelphia would have been able to come up with $250,000 to pay for them to put on the event," said Johnson, the city representative.

City Councilman Bill Green, a frequent critic of the administration who attended the meeting with Dad Vail officials last week, said he did not fault Nutter for the loss of the regatta. "Rumson is a very wealthy community. They found some people willing to step up," Green said.

But Green and other City Council members, including Maria Quiñones Sánchez, want the city to revisit its policy of uniformly requiring reimbursement for all municipal costs related to parades, regattas, and other public events.

"As a city, we haven't bothered to make the determination as to the economic impact of these activities. We don't focus on the benefits. We only focus on the costs. If 15,000 people attending that regatta are from out of town, and they're staying in our hotels, and buying our liquor, and eating at our restaurants, is that worth more to the city than what it costs us to host the event?" Green asked.

Nutter spokesman Doug Oliver said the administration would consider restoring some subsidies for public events as the economy improved.

The Dad Vail is billed as the largest collegiate regatta. More than 3,200 rowers from 120 colleges across the United States and Canada took part in the 71st Dad Vail in May.

Other big college regattas include the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships, the NCAA women's championships, and the famous Henley Regatta in England.

According to Dad Vail historian U.T. Bradley, Penn rowing coach Rusty Callow and friend Lev Brett were most responsible for creating the Dad Vail Regatta.

Callow, wanting to promote competition among colleges that sought to sponsor rowing teams, offered in 1934 to sponsor a regatta and award a trophy named in honor of his friend Harry Emerson "Dad" Vail, the longtime rowing coach at the University of Wisconsin.

The first Dad Vail took place in 1936. It was not held for three years during World War II, and it has been held at other sites, including Boston; Marietta, Ga.; and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Theoretically, the Dad Vail could return to Philadelphia as soon as 2011. But it is not clear that the economics of holding the event in Philadelphia will have changed by then, and the public sniping between city officials and regatta organizers hardly suggests an accord is in the offing.

If the regatta's Rumson experiment succeeds, the Dad Vail could well not be run in Philadelphia for many years.

And that, local rowers said, would be a tragedy.

Gavin White, the Temple University men's varsity crew coach, is one of the most successful coaches in Dad Vail history. In a low voice yesterday, he said the loss of the regatta "disappoints me on many levels."

"The Dad Vail belongs in Philadelphia," said White, who has coached the Owls for 30 years and won 21 of the last 25 varsity eight Dad Vail men's championships. "It's tragic for Philadelphia as the center of rowing in the Northeastern United States as far as many people are concerned.

"Everyone loses in this situation."