The Dad Vail rowers will be back on the Schuylkill in 2010, after regatta organizers realized that problems at the proposed new site in Rumson, N.J., outweighed any benefits of going there.
The return of the country's largest intercollegiate rowing competition to Philadelphia is a public-relations win for the city, which had struggled with the perception that it failed to support one of its most cherished institutions.
But even as the city yesterday announced its victory, questions remained about how regatta officials would fill the $250,000 funding shortfall that had prompted Dad Vail organizers to seek out sugar daddies in Rumson in the first place.
Mayor Nutter, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, Dad Vail president Jim Hanna, and Herb Lotman, a local businessman who helped bring the world the Chicken McNugget, said at a City Hall news conference that they were confident they would find the money to keep the regatta here for several more years.
"Dad Vail 2010 will be in Philadelphia, where it belongs," Nutter said. "We never stopped working to bring the Dad Vail back, and today's announcement is a victory for the young men and women who participate in this event, for the many thousands who enjoy the spectacle, and for all Philadelphians."
Dad Vail rowers have raced on the Schuylkill for 56 years, but the regatta lost sponsors this year, casting doubt on its future here. Rumson, an enclave of wealthy financiers, had promised the Dad Vail $250,000, so regatta officials agreed to move the event there in 2010.
But after race organizers visited Rumson in the last week, they realized the site posed challenges. They worried, for example, that they wouldn't have enough space to store boats and might have to rent it from parking lots, people close to the Dad Vail board said.
Some colleges that participated in the event complained that their costs would increase because they would have to travel.
Then, Brady (D., Pa.) and others raised questions about whether Rumson officials would come through with the $250,000.
Hanna was circumspect about the board's exact reasons for keeping the regatta in Philadelphia.
"All voices were heard. All options were evaluated, and a decision was made in the best interest of everyone," he said.
Nutter said some corporate sponsors in Philadelphia had expressed interest, but he would not name them. He also promised that the city would work to lower the $70,000 in overtime, cleanup, and other costs that it began charging the regatta this year. To shore up its budget, the city this year began charging organizers of all public events for costs they incur.
Nutter said he would soon pull together a team of city officials, including Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis and City Representative Melanie Johnson, to review the logistics of hosting the race, traditionally held in May, and determine less costly ways to hold it.
"We really do want to get into the nuts and bolts of the event," Nutter said.
For example, he said, the city would look at having the regatta last two days instead of three, which could save $30,000 in city costs.
Hanna said the city had promised to upgrade course facilities and finish-line stands, provide water for the downriver launch site, and improvise restrooms.
Lotman, founder of Keystone Foods, a major supplier to McDonald's that is based in Conshohocken, said he had contacted Nutter and Hanna last week to see if he could help.
"How could you let a world-class event go out of town?" Lotman asked.
He said that in a 90-minute phone conversation with Hanna on Friday night, he had stressed the importance of keeping Dad Vail in Philadelphia.
Hanna yesterday called Lotman "the Henry Kissinger of brokering the arrangement between Dad Vail and the City of Philadelphia."
A Haverford resident, Lotman helped McDonald's figure out how to produce the Chicken McNugget. He also cofounded the LPGA Championship, a golf event that raised $47 million over 28 years for Ronald McDonald House Charities.
He offered to help find money for the Dad Vail. He did not provide details yesterday but stressed that he knows many wealthy executives in the area whom he could "call and ask for favors."
He also said he wanted to raise money to create a rowing program for city children.
Lotman is not unknown to Nutter. He sits on the board of trustees - and is a former board chairman - of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is in the Council district that Nutter represented for nearly 15 years.
Lotman has also donated more than $100,000 to the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, which last year struck a deal with the city to keep three city-owned ice rinks open that Nutter had proposed to close because of budget troubles. In addition, just last month Nutter spoke at the 35th anniversary celebration of the Please Touch Museum, a gala in which Keystone Foods was one of the biggest sponsors.
Lotman's and Brady's involvement gave the Dad Vail board a degree of financial comfort to move back to Philadelphia.
Organizers initially complained that the city was unresponsive to the Dad Vail's financial problems, while Nutter has said regatta officials never gave him time to answer those concerns before turning to Rumson.
Yesterday, Brady and others were careful to say Nutter had done nothing wrong. "It was never his fault," Brady said.
Nutter said the perception that the city had stopped trying to keep the regatta here was incorrect. "We were relentless in our efforts," he said.
The rowing community praised the news.
Don DiJulia, athletic director at St. Joseph's University, called the effort by Nutter, Brady, and participating colleges to keep the regatta in Philadelphia "the ultimate in cooperation."
"We've had rowing for about 60 years, and our connection could be from the first one," he said of the importance of the regatta to the school's rowing team.
Longtime Temple University men's crew coach Gavin White said he was delighted. Under White, the Owls men's varsity eight has won 21 of the last 28 Dad Vail championships.
"The Dad Vail is as Philadelphia as anything," White said. "It's so great because for the colleges here, the kids get to perform at home. Both the mayor and Brady seemed to care quite a bit that the regatta remain here."
Clete Graham, commodore of the 151-year-old Schuylkill Navy, said the regatta's return was great news. The navy is the local governing body for rowing events.
"I'm glad to see there was so much interest" in keeping the regatta here, Graham said. "It's definitely here for 2010, and they promised a five-year commitment to it although they may be just hedging their bets. It certainly has increased awareness" of the regatta.
Nutter said he was confident that the city, Brady, and race organizers would raise the necessary funding. "We have a little bit of time," Nutter said. "It's only December."