UPDATE: Regatta sponsors signed

Hanging In The Balance

Regatta festival will go on
with or without Unlimiteds, officials say

Loss of Belterra’s sponsorship has officials scrambling

Don Ward,

(March 2002) MADISON, Ind. - With a deadline fast approaching, Madison Regatta Inc. members are scrambling to find a new sponsor – or multiple sponsors – for this summer’s Unlimited hydroplane race weekend after past sponsor Belterra Casino Resort pulled out.

Indiana Edition Cover

Belterra Casino Vice President and General Manager Alain Uboldi notified Regatta board president Tony Steinhardt in a Feb. 5 letter that the Florence, Ind., casino would not be able to sponsor the event this year because of its own financial demands. Instead, the casino executive has elected to contribute a smaller amount to the Regatta and to two new Madison festivals, the Bluegrass on the River on June 7-8 and the Madison Ribberfest on Aug. 16-18. The latter festival will involve a balloon race, barbecue cooking contests and blues bands performing on the Madison riverfront.
“This was not an easy decision to make but it was a necessary one from a financial standpoint,” said Uboldi, 55, a native of Monte Carlo who has spent much of his career in the hotel and casino industry, and the last 18 years in Las Vegas.
Belterra’s only other significant sponsorship commitment is to fulfill the third in a three-year deal with the Kentucky Speedway’s Indy Racing League event Aug. 11. Regatta officials, meanwhile, have been mailing sponsorship kits and calling companies in the region to try and replace the lost $50,000-plus package that Belterra provided.
“Belterra was a great sponsor; they said this was purely a business decision, and they will still be involved in this year’s Regatta as a supporting sponsor,” Steinhardt told the Madison Regatta Inc. membership Feb. 5 while announcing the bad news. He spent much of that evening in closed door sessions with the Regatta board of directors in planning their strategy for salvaging the Unlimiteds for the July 6-7 weekend.
The Regatta board still plans to stage limited boat racing – 2.5 stocks, 5-litre and 7-litre classes – plus vintage hydroplanes at the summer event. The latter will include 16 vintage hulls and four Jersey Speed Skiffs, which will offer rides for $20. The Regatta board had earlier hoped to expand the race schedule into three days this year, with 10 Unlimiteds reportedly ready to race.
Should the Unlimiteds schedule be scrapped, it would mark the first time in the 51-year history of the modern event that the Regatta would be held without the big boats on the water, according to unlimited hydroplane historian Fred Farley. That string dates to 1950.
As each week passes, the pressure builds for Steinhardt and his board members. Officials at Belterra and Hydro-Prop, the Florida-based Unlimiteds circuit new owner, are trying to aid in the sponsorship search. They have until early March to find one because of a requirement to notify the U.S. Coast Guard 110 days prior to the event.
Regatta board member and past president Herb Parker said a decision on bringing in the Unlimiteds will likely be made at the March 6 board of directors meeting. As of late February, Parker said he was still optimistic that a title sponsor could be found to support the committee’s $350,000 annual budget.
“A lot is still up in the air; it’s not a definite no. We have to keep beating the bushes to find some money somewhere,” Parker said.
Belterra had sponsored the event the previous two years with only a year-to-year commitment. But two administrative changes at Belterra since July left the Regatta committee having to re-introduce the sponsorship benefits to new personnel.
“That requires time to build a relationship, and we haven’t had that kind of time with the new folks up there,” Parker said. Uboldi took over at Belterra in December.
Steinhardt’s crew must also locate sponsors for other Regatta festival events, such as the Saturday night fireworks show, the Friday night parade, the bed race and the 3-on-3 basketball tournament.
Uboldi and Steinhardt met in mid-February to discuss other partnering opportunities, including a golf tournament that may be held about a month prior to race weekend. “We may do some things with the Regatta that would involve our hotel and their boat drivers,” Uboldi said.
Pinnacle Entertainment reported that Belterra had a loss in the fourth quarter and an annual loss of $5.1 million in 2001 despite a before-tax income totaling $107.6 million.
Regatta officials, meanwhile, have been promoting the recently released results of a Purdue University study conducted last year that showed a $1.5 million economic impact on the community generated by the annual event. The study also showed an equivalent of 42.4 jobs and $436,916 in wages and salaries produced by the Regatta. Of those polled during last year’s race, 26.4 percent were attending the Regatta for the first time, and 94 percent of them were non-residents.
Given the odds of finding a sponsor this late and in this poor economic climate, and armed with the results of the Purdue study on the Regatta’s economic impact, Steinhardt and other Regatta officials are considering approaching the Jefferson County Commission for some of the casino admission tax money to at least get them through this year. Jefferson and Crawford counties were projected to receive $1 million annually in casino tax sharing revenue, while Ripley County was to receive $500,000 from Belterra and additional money from Grand Victoria Casino.
“It’s not something that we want to do, but we are considering it,” Parker said. “And why not? The economic study speaks for itself.”
Commissioner Steve Lyons, however, said it is unlikely the commission or the seven-member county council, which grants fiscal approval to such requests, would support the idea of bailing out the Regatta. “It would set a bad precedent, plus I don’t think the people of this county would stand for it. That money has always been earmarked for improving the county’s infrastructure and roads, and I don’t see anything that’s going to change it.”
As of late February, Jefferson County had received $689,830 in Belterra casino tax money since the facility opened in October 2000 as part of the revenue sharing agreement, according to county auditor Fred Koehler. The Jefferson County Commission in 1995 decided to set aside 10 percent of all casino money received for economic development through the Madison-Jefferson County Industrial Development Corp (MIDCOR) and another 10 percent for historic preservation. The latter is to be allocated by a seven-member historic preservation board created by the commission. In December, the commission spent $5,000 on upgrades to the Jefferson County 4-H Fairgrounds and $50,000 on a new roof for the Jefferson County Highway Garage. That leaves a balance of $496,864, much of which will be used to pave roads, Lyons said.
Even without such help, many believe the Regatta will survive.
“The Regatta committee has been in this position before and was able to pull through, so I’m confident they can do it again,” said Madison Mayor Al Huntington. “But we’ve got to be realistic because it’s getting tougher to do, especially with the impact we’re seeing from the Kentucky Speedway and other events going on in the area. It’s not just here, the entire sport is being tested. It’s very expensive to hold these events, and time is getting short.”
Considering the current economic climate, the challenge of finding an 11th hour title sponsor looms large, especially considering the difficulty other cities are having in landing sponsors for their events.
Steinhardt acknowledges the challenge but remains undeterred. He has been marshalling community volunteers and recruiting new Regatta committee members to pull off a successful event, with or without the big boats.
“The Madison Regatta just wouldn’t be the same without the Unlimiteds, but we’re going to do everything we can to bring them back,” said Regatta board member Mike Adams. “The little boats are fun, but the Unlimiteds are what everyone comes to see.”
Losing the Unlimiteds in Madison would also stymie Hydro-Prop’s quest to expand its schedule from six to eight stops, according to Hydro-Prop CEO Bart Garbrecht.
“We don’t want to lose a race, especially in Madison with the history it has in the sport,” said Garbrecht by telephone from Hydro-Prop’s office in Winter Haven, Fla. “Anyone who was there last year saw history (with Miss Madison winning). We’ve been working with Tony to explore potential sponsors all over the region. We’ve got a good ESPN2 package to offer that has 76 million viewers nationally, not to mention the exposure regionally.”
Hydro-Prop plans to race the Unlimiteds at the same six sites as last year and could possibly add St. Petersburg, Fla., to the list on Oct. 18 in conjunction with its off-shore boat races, Garbrecht said. Other cities that are working on potential races in 2003 include Owensboro, Ky., Sanford, Fla., and Toronto.
Hydro-Prop’s entry into the sport last year was hailed as a sign of strength, based on the track record of its owner, Gary Garbrecht, who proved himself with the popular Formula One circuit. But in Madison, hydroplane fans are just hoping to preserve their day at the races – before time runs out.

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