Taking a closer look

Ongoing struggle to stage Regatta
has mayor calling for impact study

By Don Ward

For nearly six months now, members of the Madison Regatta Inc. have worked hard to organize another year of racing on the Ohio River during the Fourth of July weekend. But without a title sponsor this year and no money from Budweiser to help fund the event, some business owners and city officials are preparing themselves for a possible future Regatta without the Unlimiteds.

Mayor Al Huntington

Mayor Al Huntington

Or no boat race at all.
Many are ready to move on, but for the die-hard Unlimited hydroplane boat racing fans and others who flock to the river each summer, it is hard to let go.
Madison Mayor Al Huntington has heard enough concern from residents and the business community this year to do something about it. Soon after this year’s Madison Regatta is over, he plans to gather a group of community minded people to study the impact and future viability of the event. He believes that such a group must consist of some Regatta faithful but also non-Regatta supporters who can take an objective look at a variety of factors.
Huntington says he admires the devotion that many people have to the 55-year tradition in Madison, however, he also considers himself a realist. And if the Madison Regatta’s Unlimited boat racing show isn’t enough to attract a title sponsor willing to put up $30,000 to $50,000 to put their name on the event, he figures maybe it’s time to move on to something else that will?
“When you look at the Madison Ribberfest and how successful and popular that event is after only three years, you begin to wonder if boat racing is really what people want these days,” Huntington said during a June 24 interview. “Today, NASCAR (auto racing) is hot, but by comparison, very few people have ever seen a hydroplane race. Maybe the market and the demographics are changing, and people are looking for other things to do?”
Huntington wants the study to provide answers to several questions that he and others are asking:
• What is the economic impact on the community?
• What is the level of community interest in the Madison Regatta?
• What is the new American Boat Racing Association going to do for the race site?
• If Madison can’t afford to stage an Unlimited boat race, what alternatives are there?
Huntington said he hopes to meet with ABRA officials over Regatta weekend to see what plans they have to support the race sites next year. “I think it will be incumbent upon the ABRA to show us what they can do for Madison, not what Madison can do for them.”
He also wants some hard data from the independent study to determine if the Regatta is still an economically viable event for the community. “We need to get some accountants and bankers and marketing experts and business people involved – some people who are not directly involved with the Regatta,” he said.
Huntington said he has no answers or preconceived notions about the study’s outcome. He is hoping that Regatta members will agree that such a study would be beneficial.
“We can’t keep going on this way – not knowing if we’re going to meet the gate each year, and that is no reflection at all on the Regatta committee. But they’ve got to pay their bills, and not just the boat teams and the ABRA but also local vendors here in town who help support them all year-round.”
Last fall, Madison Regatta Inc. issued a press release summarizing the “economic benefits” the event has on the community. The race weekend pumps $120,000 directly into the Madison economy through the purchase of goods and services, the release said. Another $13,000 was donated by the Regatta committee to various non-profit groups who helped stage the event. The report cited a net profit for the fifth consecutive year.
Budweiser served as the event’s title sponsor the past three years. Prior to that, Belterra Casino Resort was the sponsor for two years. Jasper Engines was the sponsor in 1999.
Aside from hotels, restaurants, gas stations, bars and liquor stores, many business owners along Main Street say other retailers gain little from the Regatta itself. However, the Regatta Festival, which runs the week leading up to race weekend, enjoys strong local support from a variety of businesses. Perhaps for that reason, and the longstanding tradition of the event, merchants voice support for some type of holiday festival.
“The Regatta is a good event for us, business-wise, but not as good as the Madison Chautauqua (Festival of Art in September),” said Cindy Jones, owner of Cafe Camille on Main Street.
“We have a lot of people who come into our restaurant to eat and drink, so we support the Regatta,” said Ryan Shaw, manager of Historic Broadway Hotel & Tavern. “We buy wristbands and advertise with the Regatta committee. We do whatever we can for the Regatta.” He added that Regatta and Chautauqua are the biggest weekends for his business.
Best Western of Madison is located on the hilltop but is always full for the Madison Regatta. Many boat team members stay there. Owner Matt Griswold said he would probably still have good business during a Regatta held without the Unlimiteds, “but I like the Unlimiteds. Without them, it would definitely have an impact on Madison.”
Best Western served as the sponsor of the Regatta’s recent Texas Hold-em Poker Tournament and is an associate sponsor for the Media Tent.
Two new Main Street businesses in town have yet to experience a Regatta, but Phyllis Lovely of Lovely Creations gift shop and Debbie Miller of Dusty Miller Antiques are anxious to see it. Lovely worries that the price increase for admission wristbands may keep some people away this year. Or they may go to the Kentucky side where they can watch the races for less money. Miller, meanwhile, who recently moved here from the Chicago area, has done well selling racing collectibles and hopes to do well over the Regatta weekend.
“It’s a neat thing for a small community to have,” Miller said. “It would be sad if they didn’t have the Unlimiteds.”

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