LONG BEACH — For more than half a century, the picturesque New England coastal town of Newport, R.I., was probably best known as the site of sailing's top event, the America's Cup regatta. The city basked in publicity and received millions in tourism dollars.
When the Australians defended the cup for the first time last year, the city of Fremantle was transformed from just another wind-swept western outpost into a world-class party spot. Free-spending race watchers followed the regatta by day and jammed bars and restaurants by night.
Long Beach wants to be next.
With the announcement that a special America's Cup defense will be staged this summer in San Pedro Bay, Long Beach officials are hustling to have the city designated as the official host.
"We feel we would be the ideal host city for the America's Cup challenge," said Mayor Ernie Kell. "We feel it should and will be held in the City of Long Beach."
While Long Beach appeared to have the inside track, other communities were also in the running.
"We have not talked to other cities but other sites are being considered--all the way from Seal Beach to San Pedro," said Tom Mitchell, spokesman for Sail America in San Diego, which is organizing the regatta.
Long Beach officials estimate the major sporting event could generate anywhere up to $100 million in business for local merchants. The event would start gearing up when the crews arrive for practice in early June and would last through the races, tentatively scheduled to begin Sept. 4.
Officials also wax enthusiastic at the prospect of 2,500 to 5,000 journalists from around the globe who will not only come to Long Beach to cover the race, but will write and broadcast about the city as well.
"There's no question this kind of event would put Long Beach on the map and keep it there a very long time," said Joseph Prevratil, chairman of the board of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and president of Wrather Port Properties, which operates the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose.
All in all, it is pretty heady stuff for a city that had given up all hope of being the host for the famed regatta until about three weeks ago. If it had not been for an unprecedented challenge of the America's Cup rules by a New Zealander, Long Beach would still be on the sidelines.
When Dennis Conner won back the America's Cup from the Australians last winter, the San Diego Yacht Club had planned to defend its newly won trophy from an international fleet of 12-meter yacht competitors in its home waters in 1991.
But New Zealand merchant banker Michael Fay, backer of his island nation's first and surprisingly competitive entry in the regatta last year, won a ruling from the New York Supreme Court that upheld his right to make a challenge for the cup this September under a strict interpretation of the 100-year-old Deed of Trust.
Forced to hold a race this year, Sail America has limited the challenge to Fay's entry. The group intends to try to beat Fay, then hold the 12-meter competition as scheduled in 1991.
Fay announced that he will compete in September in a boat with a 90-foot waterline, the largest allowed under the deed. In response, Sail America is building two multihull boats--catamarans or trimarans--that, in theory, should easily Top Fay's entry.
But multihulls come with a hitch: They cannot maintain their heavy advantage over single-hull boats in light winds like those that usually prevail in San Diego during September.
Though the two cities are only about 100 miles apart, the winds in Long Beach normally blow substantially stronger that time of year.
When Sail America announced Jan. 22 that the race site would be off Long Beach or in Hawaii, Long Beach officials were caught by surprise. The America's Cup Committee appointed last year by Mayor Ernie Kell had all but disbanded after trying to coax Sail America into staging the 1991 races off Long Beach.
Hastily recalled, the committee met two weeks ago to map strategy under the leadership of James Ackerman, a Long Beach attorney who was involved in the Eagle 12-meter syndicate that competed in Fremantle. Ackerman said he has since met several times with Sail America officials.
Other committee members are working in their own areas of expertise. Harbor Commissioner C. Robert Langslet said he has been scouting the harbor for possible sites for boat storage areas and a large press center.
Dick Sargent, president and chief executive officer of the International City Celebration that is organizing the city's yearlong 100th birthday events, said he hopes to fund local costs of the America's Cup through the existing fund-raising organization for the city's centennial.
The Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Council and Chamber of Commerce are being consulted about whether they could meet the demands laid down by Sail America.