SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – Anywhere else on Earth, the chance to host a world-class event like the America’s Cup would have the civic leaders abuzz.
But in case you haven’t been paying attention, San Francisco may or may not be on the same planet as the rest of us. Side story that says a lot about the political realities of San Francisco: let’s go back to 1983. Mayor Dianne Feinstein is facing a recall election after she proposed a handgun ban–and was targeted for recall by a leftist group. She was dismissive of the recall, and my colleague Mike Sugerman pressed her by saying, “But Mayor Feinstein, more than 20,000 people signed the petition!”
Feinstein’s reply summed up San Francisco realpolitik: “Mike,” she sighed, “This is San Francisco. You could get 20,000 people to sign a petition calling for open-air sewers on Market Street.” Further side story: Mike took her up on that assertion and did get several people to sign such a petition.
Back to the main thread. The carping from elected (and formerly-elected) officials has been consistent and can be summed up thusly: “We don’t want to make anything easy, and we sure as heck don’t want to make anything easy for a bunch of rich guys.”
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Political posturing aside, can someone show me exactly how the just-completed America’s Cup regatta was a loser for San Francisco (and, in a broader sense, the Bay Area at large)? There’s been an insane fixation on a probably-inflated “economic benefit” number floated way early in the process. So what if the event didn’t generate $1.4 billion in economic impact (as if anyone can actually prove such a number anyway)?
You don’t have to wait for the final numbers to come in to know that the America’s Cup attracted a lot of people to The City. It’ll seem a little strange not to hear the New Zealand accents that became such a part of the cityscape over the summer. Make no mistake about it: tourism is a huge economic engine in San Francisco. Visitors spent millions of dollars a day, and tourism pours a half-billion dollars a year worth of tax and fee money into the City treasury.
As they take down the signs and banners, Cup organizers will leave behind a cleaned-up setting at Piers 27 and 29, two of the many underutilized eyesores along the San Francisco waterfront. “The City That Knows How” has been notably slow to capitalize on its remarkable waterfront and the Cup events did far more good than harm.
Without question, billionaire Larry Ellison’s side overreached in choosing the wickedly-expensive AC-72 catamarans. A cheaper boat would have kept more players in the game, probably triggering even more tourist visits (and long-term stays by competing teams). But the game-changing speed developed by sailboats that ride on foils instead of hulls is a “no-turning-back” proposition. Wherever the next America’s Cup is held, it’ll be an amazing spectacle. Give naval architects, sailors and the people cooking up broadcast technology another three or four years and who knows what they’ll come up with?
Which brings us back to San Francisco. There are few places on the planet where you can stage a sailboat race within full view of crowds that can watch for free. It’s a city already blessed with the infrastructure to handle throngs of visitors. And you’d think any place with those blessings would be thrilled to host the next America’s Cup.
But this is not just any place. It’s San Francisco. Ellison’s win will merely begin the next round of backbiting and posturing. The boat-loving billionaire can help his case by declaring early and often that he’s not in this to score a real estate coup along the waterfront. He won’t win over the usual suspects, who play the political game as a full-contact sport. He can’t expect logic to prevail, because that’s not how San Francisco rolls.
He needs to find a way to make the yacht races feel like a gift to the City and not a billionaire’s scam. And he needs to be ready for the reality that winning the Cup twice might be easier than winning the hearts of San Francisco politicians.
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