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Who lost Dad Vail Regatta?

Even with the best efforts of race organizers and city officials, keeping the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia might have been economically impossible.

Even with the best efforts of race organizers and city officials, keeping the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia might have been economically impossible.

But a review of events leading to the regatta's departure for Rumson, N.J., suggests that neither Dad Vail organizers nor the Nutter administration mustered much of an effort to keep the storied rowing meet in Philadelphia.

Dad Vail leaders - who in recent weeks have castigated the administration for doing too little to retain the regatta - had unanimously agreed to decamp for Rumson 13 days before they gave Mayor Nutter any notice that the regatta might go.

The vote, taken by 14 board members on Oct. 13, followed a presentation from two Rumson representatives that touted the town's racecourse and amenities, according to minutes of the meeting that The Inquirer obtained. Although the board discussed putting off a move until 2011, that was deemed too risky financially, according to the minutes.

Rumson, the board members decided, would host the 72d Dad Vail Regatta so long as it could come up with $100,000 to help fund the event by Nov. 15. The money was to serve as a down payment on the $250,000 in private donations Rumson had pledged.

It wasn't until 13 days later that regatta leaders notified Philadelphia that a move was afoot.

Even that letter, mailed Oct. 26, was cryptic. Two sentences long, the note warned the mayor that the regatta had "an important matter of special urgency" to discuss. It did not explicitly say that the regatta - the largest collegiate rowing event in the nation and a 56-year Philadelphia tradition - was about to leave.

There was likely little, if anything, the city could have done at that point to keep the 2010 regatta. But any chance Philadelphia might have had was squandered when the Nutter administration either misplaced or ignored the Oct. 26 letter.

In recent days Nutter has contended that there was no Oct. 26 letter, that Dad Vail organizers had sent an e-mail. But a letter was delivered, according to a registered-mail receipt, at City Hall on Oct. 27. It was signed for by an employee who routinely handles Nutter's correspondence. Copies of the letter were also sent to Gov. Rendell and city officials.

It wasn't until Nov. 2, when Dad Vail organizers sent a second, more detailed letter explicitly warning that they were likely to leave, that City Hall responded.

Even then, Nutter did not become personally involved, instead asking his staff to meet with the regatta leaders. Ten more days passed before the meeting was held - because of scheduling conflicts, according to administration officials. By that time, the regatta had already received a $100,000 donation from Michael Gooch of Rumson, chief executive officer of an international brokerage-services group.

That the regatta had "money in the bank" before even sitting down with the city proves, Nutter said, that he was never given a fair chance to keep the event in Philadelphia.

"If the Dad Vail folks had been honest, if they had been legitimate, if they had been forthright and not disingenuous in their intentions, there's not one doubt in my mind that that event would be here in Philadelphia next summer," Nutter said early last week.

"I think after 50-plus years the city is due a little better treatment than that."

Given the city's recent fiscal woes - including a six-year $2.4 billion deficit that Nutter eliminated only through major spending cuts and temporary tax hikes - Philadelphia was unlikely to have matched Rumson's cash donation. But with more warning Nutter might have been able to reduce the city's charges to the regatta or perhaps sought local private sponsors.

Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma said the governor received the letters but "did not think there was a sense of urgency," especially as the city had not asked him for help.

"The governor just assumed it was being taken care of at the city level," Tuma said.

Dad Vail organizers contend that they had told the city for years of their concerns about the escalating cost of holding the event in Philadelphia. The city charges the regatta about $70,000 a year, which covers police, park, and other associated expenses.

"We have repeatedly gone to the city and asked them to hold the line on costs," Dad Vail president Jim Hanna said. "But it was as if our requests fell on deaf ears. As the 2009 regatta approached, costs increased again, but the problem was we didn't have the sponsorships to sustain those costs."

Although the city's charge is just a fraction of the $500,000 that the event needs annually, the $70,000 bill became an increasingly big problem for the Dad Vail as it lost sponsors amid the economic downturn.

In 2007 and 2008, Hanna met with Fairmount Park officials and raised concerns about the city's charges, which had grown sharply, due in part to a new policy of charging not just for the pay that city employees earn while working the regatta, but also for a small share of their pension and health-care costs.

City parks commissioner Mark Focht, who met with Hanna in 2007 and 2008, confirmed that the Dad Vail was troubled by the city's increasing bill. But he said the regatta did not adopt city suggestions, such as doing away with a beer garden or shortening the event, that could have limited costs. Focht also said the regatta leaders never mentioned the possibility the race would leave Philadelphia.

Hanna confirmed that he never explicitly raised the prospect of moving the Dad Vail with city officials until fall, when Rumson had already been selected. Asked why the nonprofit did not tell Nutter sooner that the regatta might leave, Hanna said he had not wanted to issue an ultimatum to the city.

"We're not an ultimatum people. We know the city is in bad economic shape. They knew we couldn't incur these increasing costs," Hanna said.

So nonconfrontational were the Dad Vail organizers that they sent Focht a letter in May, thanking him for his help in supporting the 2009 regatta. The brief note made no mention of the nonprofit's economic troubles, or of the city's charges.

"What strikes me is there was no follow-up from these guys," Focht said. "In 2007 and 2008 they say they're worried about the costs, but we never met in 2009 and they even send me this glowing letter telling us how supportive we are. Given that, I don't know how we were supposed to know this was coming."

Although Rumson clearly hopes the Dad Vail - which drew more than 30,000 visitors a year to Philadelphia - will stay in New Jersey, the regatta made just a one-year commitment to its new venue. Theoretically, it could return to Philadelphia for the 2011 race.

"If Philadelphia wants to get the Dad Vail back, what people need to do is put on a sunny face and work for it," Hanna said.