Originally created 05/17/98

Organizers look to rebuild image



The face of River Race Augusta's future is covered with green slime.

Nickelodeon's signature slime.

As organizers try to go from less than zero to 100 mph with an event best described as the NASCAR of the waterways, they want more than adrenalin fans looking for the thrill of high-speed turns and the spray of water in the wake of a boat.

They want people like Scott Taylor of Augusta, whose sons dragged him out to the 1998 event after seeing a commercial promising games and green slime from the children's TV channel Nickelodeon.

"This is my first time down here," said Mr. Taylor, who raised his hand to volunteer for games and called out for the attention of the Rugrats characters along with 10-year-old Wesley and 8-year-old Casey. "My boys said `Dad, we want to go.' They're really enjoying it."

Mr. Taylor and his sons are the target audience for the resurrected River Race Augusta, an event organizers are trying to make more family-oriented as they rebuild momentum in the wake of canceled races in 1997 and a $50,000 debt to the city of Augusta. This year is pivotal in getting the event back on its feet and could be a bellwether for future races.

"Everything hinges on this year," spokesman Ben Blackmon said. "When it's over, we'll sit down and look at it, and if everything isn't working OK, we'll have to rethink it. But right now, everything looks positive."

Turnout will not only determine the future of the races but will give an indication of how long it will take to pay back the $50,000 of taxpayer money, a gift from the city originally intended to help pay for the canceled 1997 races. It was used to pay off old debts, instead.

The gift sparked controversy after Augusta commissioners denied ever voting on the money being spent, although Mayor Larry Sconyers, a long-time supporter of the event, said a majority of commissioners approved the expense. Only Commissioner J.B. Powell ever admitted having any knowledge of it.

The controversy is water under the bridge, Mr. Blackmon said. A new corporation heads the event -- although top officials are the same -- and will pay off the debt, although they prefer to look to the future.

Under a settlement with the city, organizers will pay back the debt as they are able, from the profits of future events. They are allowed to accumulate up to $7,500 in reserve.

The race was funded this year mainly by five major corporate sponsors. No taxpayer money was used.

In its heyday, the profitable event pumped close to $1 million into the city's economy. River Race Augusta is now a nonprofit organization that will donate money to United Cerebral Palsy of the CSRA, Mr. Blackmon said.

Organizers say they won't know until the weekend is over how much they will be able to donate to the charity or pay toward the debt. They have paid expenses up-front this year, so there will be no additional debt -- and at last count the books were in the black, Mr. Blackmon said.

They expect at least 7,000 spectators to turn out for the races, but are hoping for something closer to 10,000. Attendance figures were unavailable Saturday.

Regaining momentum was tough in the face of the past few years, Mr. Blackmon admitted. Many contracts this year had to be paid in cash, and skeptics said the races would never get off the ground, he said.

The races have had to bounce back from several setbacks: In 1995, most of the major racers Augustans followed since the inception of the River Race in the mid-1980s were kept away by a conflicting race in Kentucky. And the event hadn't regained its footing when the 1997 race was canceled after organizers were unable to resolve the issue of boat docks that could be built into the Savannah River from RiverNorth subdivision on the South Carolina banks.

It wasn't the docks that killed River Race 1997. It was the fear of the docks.

Unable to assure that spectators would stay off the structures, organizers and participants feared that insurers would refuse to cover the race. The question was still up in the air in September of 1996, when contracts would have been signed for the 1997 races, Mr. Blackmon said.

So organizers voted to cancel.

This year, only two docks -- both away from the race course near the marina -- were in evidence, and organizers were able to get insurance coverage, although the situation hasn't changed from last year. But the problem has only been deferred, not resolved.

Of 72 riverfront lots, only four have been sold so far -- and one lot owner is already having his dock built, said the developer who is selling the property.

"The permits for the docks are still in place," said developer Carl Sanders Jr., adding that the choice to build docks will rest with individual buyers. "We're not permitted to build them ourselves, but they will be built as people purchase the property."

Race organizers hope to convince property owners to build retractable docks or at least to agree to keep spectators off of them during the races. If that doesn't work, River Race Augusta will look for another part of the river to hold the event on, even if it means bulldozing the banks to create an area wide enough -- a contingency plan already considered for the 1998 races if more docks had been built, Mr. Blackmon said.

"We want to have the races every year, come hell or high water," he said.

The races continue today.