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Let's Get Racing!

Jerry York has spent untold hours developing, promoting and defending the idea of bringing the Super Boat International (SBI) power boat races to Charlotte County. On the second weekend of April he’ll find out if it was worth the effort.

The inaugural Charlotte County Grand Prix, the first race in SBI’s 9-race season, kicks off with a parade and street party in Punta Gorda on Friday, April 11 before literally taking over Englewood Beach on Manasota Key, April 12-13. If York and his fellow organizers, including the Charlotte Harbor Visitors’ Bureau, are on target, it could mean as many as 80,000 people descending on the Key and 8 to 10 million dollars flowing into the County. Even at half those numbers, it’s the biggest event ever to take place on Englewood Beach.

York had been pondering a way to bring the super fast boats to our area before he and Ken Kretzler responded to a request from the Charlotte Harbor Visitors Bureau for ideas to boost tourism in the County. York further developed the idea with Kristen and Robert Randolph who had experience with SBI.

They finally got to state their case at a meeting of the Charlotte County Commissioners in March 2013, where the commissioners approved the motion 4-1 and agreed to grant York’s group $250,000 in seed money to fund the project over two years with $80,000 going straight to SBI which handles everything on the water from the races to permitting and wildlife protection.

The Commissioners only had to look a little further north to see the potential financial impact of a super boat race. Sarasota has hosted SBI’s Suncoast Super Boat Grand Prix since 1984. In 2013 alone the race website notes that the total economic impact of out-of-county attendees and donors was $15,549,300. 

York’s group, Charlotte Harbor Super Boat Grand Prix (CHSBGP) felt that Charlotte County deserved a similar windfall. CHSBGP would be responsible for all the land-based activities including fundraising, finding sponsors and volunteers, local marketing, security and most crucial, parking. 

As anyone around here can tell you, on a normal sunny weekend in the spring, parking on Englewood Beach isn’t easy. With thousands more visitors and even less parking, you’ve got a potential nightmare and a source of a lot of rumors and anxiety. 

“The fear of the unknown can be overwhelming,” said York at one of the countless presentations he’s made around the county. Then he affirmed the roads to Manasota Key would not be closed at any time over the weekend because of the race. 

But don’t try to park at a beach business you’re not patronizing, or scam a spot on the street, because it’s very likely when you come back to find your car, it will be gone. 

The solution? Anyone who wants to see the races, can buy a ticket, park their car in one of a dozen or so lots, and get an air conditioned ride in one of more than 50 motor coaches that will be traveling up and down the Festival area throughout the weekend. 

Don Musilli initially got involved with the Grand Prix in April 2013 when he was the Interim Executive Director at the Englewood Cape Haze Area Chamber of Commerce, and the course had been changed from Charlotte Harbor to Englewood Beach. Musilli said he put together a group of “movers and shakers” from the area and welcomed York and his group for monthly meetings at the Chamber. Musilli said he saw the race as a way to get “significant exposure” for Englewood. Even though he is no longer employed by the Chamber, Musilli, president of Englewood Incubation Center, has remained involved, co-chairing the volunteer committee, one of nearly 30 CHSBGP committees. 

York and Musilli remain enthusiastic despite some significant difficulties along the way and even though says York, the event is “way over budget.” York had to defend the Grand Prix at another meeting of the Charlotte County Commissioners who expressed concern on the low number of sponsorships. York admits that getting sponsors has not been easy and organizers introduced more affordable sponsorship levels that have brought more donations in.

One sponsor who had no trouble getting on board, is Budweiser. That’s good news to the Englewood area’s three Rotary Clubs who are handling all beverage sales for the event and will share in the profits based on each club’s involvement level with the races. 

Ray LaBadie of the Lemon Bay Sunrise Rotary said that the organizers approached the Rotary because of the group’s experience running big events like the July 4th Cajun Festival and other fundraisers. 

With the Grand Prix festival’s live music, bikini and beefcake contests and party atmosphere, Rotary members could be very busy indeed and that would be good news for the community services, nonprofits and educational programs and scholarships supported by the three clubs. 

But not everyone is thrilled with the races coming to Englewood. Susan Atamanchuk who co-owns the Lock ’N Key right across from the festival site, said the idea of the grand prix is a good one, but the timing is not. Happening at the height of tourist season, she believes the crowd might disrupt the regular tourists and will not result in a significant bump in profits to her business and others. “August or September would have been a better time,” she said. 

Bobbie Marquis, general manager of Weston’s wannaB inn, said her business has already benefited from the Grand Prix as all 80 rooms are spoken for race weekend. Unlike the Lock ’N Key, wannaB is away from the heart of the festival and as it’s in a no wake zone, she expects minimal disruption on the water. Nonetheless, Marquis is gearing up for the event by communicating with guests who aren’t affiliated with the races, limiting parking, hiring additional security to patrol the parking areas and boat docks and even issuing armbands to all guests. “I think we’ve done our homework to make sure our guests have a great experience” she said. As for the festival itself, Marquis is cautiously upbeat. “Everybody’s watching to see how it will go. It’s not like we’ve done it before.” 

But if everything goes well, we will do it again!


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