- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

VALENCIA, Spain — If you are obliged to host the world’s premier salt-water sailing regatta but live in a landlocked, mountainous country, what do you do?

In the case of the Geneva Nautical Society, winners of the 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, you entertain bids from around the world and select the city that offers the finest possible combination of location, infrastructure and — above all — wind.

An intense competition among 64 initial bidders, several of which promised new harbors, transit systems and other facilities, ended with the selection of Valencia, a modest Mediterranean city with big ambitions to become a world-class tourist destination.

“Valencia used to be known only for beaches, oranges and paella,” a popular seafood-and-rice dish, said Jorge Vela Bargues, director general of the city’s sprawling complex of ultramodern museums and science exhibitions. “We look for the America’s Cup to change our image.”

Spending $360 million

The city of 800,000 on Spain’s southeastern coast is investing more than $360 million to attract the regatta, which will hold 20 days of preliminary competition in Valencia beginning next month and 55 days of racing at the competition’s climax in the summer of 2007.

Authorities managing the Valencia port have already converted a historic inner harbor dating from the 13th century into a reserved yacht basin and begun digging a new channel providing the America’s Cup yachts with direct access to the sea, bypassing one of the busiest seaports in Europe.

The city, meanwhile, is moving and rebuilding roads and rail lines to integrate what had been a gritty industrial shoreline into a highly attractive waterfront area that will be closely integrated with commercial areas of the city.

But all that was secondary to the selection committee, says Marcus Hutchinson, director of communications for the America’s Cup organizers in Valencia.

“There were a number of criteria,” he says, “but the most important was sailing conditions. At its core, this is a sailing regatta. This needs to be an event that people can watch without being blown away by stiff winds, or having to sit and watch the boats be becalmed.”

Valencia, it turns out, is favored by unusual geographical conditions that funnel offshore winds out of the nearby mountains, producing some of the most dependable breezes in the world. Such conditions are found in only a few other places, including Corpus Christi, Texas.

Europe is a draw

The city offered another big attraction for the organizers. Unlike Auckland, located half a world away from major yachting audiences in the United States and Europe, Valencia is just minutes by air from the major capitals of Europe.

“Commercial hospitality in New Zealand just didn’t exist; it was too hard and expensive to get there,” Mr. Hutchinson says. “In Valencia we have 350 million people within a two-hour flight.”

There were sentimental reasons as well for choosing a race venue somewhere in Europe — the continent where the oldest continuing competition in sports began off the British coast in 1851.

The Swiss victory in 2003 “was the first time a European team had won in the 150 years of the America’s Cup,” Mr. Hutchinson says. “It gave a double-edged ability to the new organizers — not only to find a venue but to pitch this event … in the modern sports marketing world of modern Europe.”

If the Cup organizers are enthusiastic about what Valencia offers to the competition, civic leaders are positively ebullient about what they think the races will do for their city.

“Millions and millions of people will hear the name Valencia now,” says Alberto Catala, president of the executive committee of Feria Valencia — Europe’s largest exhibition facility which hosts about 50 trade fairs a year.

A marketing spinoff

“In the next two years, many, many people who had never heard the name now will have. … This is the biggest marketing [project] we could do,” Mr. Catala says.

Similar energy and enthusiasm bubbles out of the offices of Mayor Rita Barbera Nolla — who boasts of the city’s Roman roots in 137 B.C. and complete municipal archives dating from 1226 — and of the regional government, based in a beautifully restored 15th-century building with a suit of medieval armor in the lobby.

A similar air of anticipation is found on the streets, where there is an almost universal expectation that the sailing competition will bring a boost to the local economy.

“The America’s Cup will be very good for Spain and for Valencia because there will be more work,” says Leniurica Baroso, 35, a waitress who immigrated from Cuba six years ago.

Even among the undocumented African immigrants who haunt the narrow streets behind Valencia’s main train station, the thought of the Cup sparks hope for a better life.

“The America’s Cup is a top illusion for [African immigrants],” says Bamba Sarr, president of the Senegalese Association of Valencia and a self-described honorary consul devoted to improving the image of his countrymen in Spain.

City flooded in 1957

“It is the dream, that there will be more jobs for them, in construction and other things.”

Valencia’s bid to become a world-class tourist destination started long before a Swiss team won the America’s Cup; in one ironic sense, it began with a devastating flood of the Turia River that left central parts of the city under several feet of water in 1957.

Authorities subsequently diverted the river away from the city center and transformed the now-dry river bed into a six-mile stretch of beautifully landscaped parkland.

Recently completed at one end of that stretch is the City of Arts and Sciences, a 1.5-mile-long complex including an opera house, planetarium, music hall, IMAX theater, science museum and aquarium, all featuring the sculptural architecture of Valencia native Santiago Calatrava.

Even so, Valencia has always felt overshadowed by Madrid and by Spain’s second largest city, Barcelona — a feeling that has been felt all the more acutely since the 1992 Olympics made Barcelona a top destination for European vacationers.

The desire to repeat Barcelona’s achievement gave extra impetus to Valencia’s America’s Cup bid, which was driven in large part by the pro-business orientation of the conservative regional government.

Madrid’s loss a gain

The excitement of being chosen as the host city early in 2004 was temporarily soured when, soon after the announcement, a wave of terror attacks helped bring a socialist national government to power in Madrid.

“Things changed,” says Mr. Hutchinson, the America’s Cup spokesman. “Money from the central government dried up … and that put a hold on some of the infrastructure projects.”

Madrid at the time was a bidder to host the 2012 Olympics, but lost out to London last July.

“The central government was standing off to see what would happen,” says Mr. Hutchinson. “Once it lost the Olympics, it said, ‘We do have something in the America’s Cup. Let’s pay attention to that.’”

Since then, he says, the infrastructure work has largely caught up.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide