CLEARWATER - The city's Downtown Development Board authorized a $10,000 grant earlier this month to organizers of the annual Bright House Clearwater Super Boat National Championship.
The three-day event, set this year from Sept. 27-29, draws an estimated 140,000 spectators and pumps as much as $15 million into the local economy, boat race co-organizer Brian Aungst said.
The grant will go toward activities and entertainment planned for the Friday and Saturday of race weekend in the downtown, including the parade of go-fast boats, the Star Spectacular concert and the Race Village where visitors can meet the boat racers, Aungst said.
In requesting financial support, Aungst told the development board, “We know you have a budget crunch. We're not going to be greedy. We would be very happy with $10,000, if we can get that.” The board authorized that same amount last year.
The grant money will come from the board's reserves, which had a balance of $96,000.
Aungst, a former Clearwater mayor, said in an interview that he and race co-organizer and founder Frank Chivas not only haven't taken a salary, but that the opposite is true.
“It has costs us money,” Aungst said, “but we support tourism, and we want to support this community. The community's success is important to us.”
The cost to put on the race, he said, is approximately $250,000, half the price of the annual Key West World Championship Power Boat Race, which takes place in the state's southernmost city each November.
Discussing the local event's success, Aungst said that last year, “I had county commissioners standing on top of the Hyatt (resort on Clearwater Beach) watching, saying this is now the largest-attended event in Pinellas County, larger than the grand prix,” an Indy car road-course race in St. Petersburg. “I'm not here to disparage any event. The grand prix is also a great event.”
Besides the obvious difference in racing between cars on streets and boats on the Gulf of Mexico, Aungst said that a report by local economist Walter Klages indicates the super boat competition has become one of the highest-scoring events in Pinellas (based on various factors). The only differentiator is that the grand prix garners national and international television coverage. The factor is keeping the boat race from achieving Pinellas County's 'elite' classification, designated by the Tourism Development Council.
“Trust me I am working on that,” Aungst said.
This year, Aungst formed a volunteer public relations team to handle local, state, regional and national efforts. The team includes Lee Edelstein of New York-based Imagine Communications, who is tasked with expanding the race's national exposure; Kathleen Peters, a representative of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce who will deal with regional and state media outlets; and city Public Communications Director Joelle Castelli, who will coordinate with local media.
In an effort to spread the reach across the country, three national journalists are expected to attend the event this year, Aungst said. “It'll take us to another level; we'll even have more exposure.”
Each year, the race is webcast live by Superboat International, and the Bright House Sports Network produces a post-race, half-hour show that features not just the competition but also the activities around it, Aungst said.
The show covers the “boats in the water, boats in the parade, the Coachman Park race village and kids on Pier 60. It really shows off downtown and Clearwater Beach,” he said, and it airs multiple times long after the event.
He also said that a report by Klages, head of Research Data Services, shows the race accounts for 6,300 hotel room bookings.
Aungst attributed the $15 million economic benefit and estimated 140,000 attendance outlined in a 2012 report to the estimated $2 million in in-kind commercials sponsored by Bright House Networks.
“We run a ton of commercials for free throughout the I-4 corridor,” Aungst said. “That's why we fill the hotels and we bring people into downtown that weekend, historically one of two slowest weekends in the year for tourism.”
Just as important, he said, “We still think we're one of the few events that successfully connects the Cleveland Street District with the beach.”
City leaders have tried in many ways to attract visitors to downtown, including helping Clearwater Marine Aquarium bring sets and costumes from the movie “Dolphin Tale” to the Harborview Center; subsidizing the Capitol Theatre renovation and the monthly street party Blast Friday; and in the past offering grant dollars to area businesses.
City development ex-officio and Vice Mayor Paul Gibson told the board, “I wish I can make that motion. Ten thousand dollars is nothing compared to the return.”
The development board also sponsors the Achieva Box Car Rally, Annual Deaf & Hard of Hearing Day, Blast Friday, the Downtown Clearwater Farmer's Market, Jazz Holiday Festival, the Clearwater Sea-Blues Festival and the Star Spectacular concert.