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Fee Keeps Event From City

Hartford Hoped For Return Of Bass Fishing Tournament, But There Was A Catch

By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

January 24, 2008

The 2006 amateur bass fishing tournament in downtown Hartford left an estimated $2.6 million in the region when the weigh-ins were done.

But it was a much smaller figure the $75,000 "site fee" incentive requested by the tournament's organizers that made Hot Springs, Ark., not Hartford, the tournament's home for 2008.

This big one got away, local officials say, because there was no agreement on how the fee would be paid, or by whom.

That's certainly not in our budget," said James Abromaitis, head of the quasi-public, state-funded Capital City Economic Development Authority.

"We certainly don't have that sitting around," said Joe Marfuggi, head of the nonprofit Riverfront Recapture that spearheaded the effort. "And the other groups they don't have that sitting around."

State and city officials say they're now working to design a way to pay such fees in the future so they can act more quickly when a tournament nibbles.

"They loved Hartford and really wanted to come back," Marfuggi said of the amateur bass fishermen at the 2006 Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League All-American. "We were not able to put together the funding package to sign a contract with them and close the deal."

City tourism boosters boasted the 2006 event when it happened, saying that its participants loved the Connecticut River's proximity to their hotels and the Connecticut Convention Center, where weigh-ins happened each afternoon of the three-day event. The tournament's organizers at FLW Outdoors told the city they would be back.

But getting the tournament back meant paying the industry-standard "site fee."

In 2006, the state's Department of Economic and Community Development had paid the $75,000 to bring the bass fishermen to town. The agency headed at the time by Abromaitis had the intention of helping "get this tournament off the ground," said department spokesman James Watson.

"But we did it with the understanding that, in the future, Riverfront Recapture and the others were to raise the funds necessary," Watson said.

This time around, the department was again willing to chip in. But it put $25,000 on the table, not the full $75,000, hoping that some other public and private partners would contribute.

They didn't.

Marfuggi and Abromaitis say that what is lacking is not just money, but a mechanism. Although the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau often provides "in-kind" services like public relations support to incoming events, there is no formal process to pay for site fees.

"One of the realities is that there isn't really anybody with the responsibility to make it happen," Marfuggi said. "It's not really in anybody's mission. There's no one entity that really has the funding or the ability to negotiate."

FLW Outdoors did not return a call for comment. Its 2008 event is scheduled for May 29-31 at Lake Hamilton outside Hot Springs. Site fees are included in the annual budget of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We build it into our budget," Steve Arrison, the bureau's CEO, said of the site fee. Hot Springs has a local 3 percent restaurant and hotel tax that helps fill the bureau's coffers. The bureau pays its site fees out of that revenue.

"Site fees for fishing tournaments are very common," he said. "Everybody wants to know what you are going to do for them."

The payback from national publicity to local spending makes it "a big plus," Arrison said.

In order to bring that big plus back to Hartford, the agencies involved are working to draft a plan that would address such situations in the future.

"What we would like to do is, let's put a mechanism in place so that we can respond publicly to an event that really makes economic sense," Marfuggi said. "How do we take advantage of a big, reputable sporting event like this tournament and turn it around quickly?"

Abromaitis agreed. "We all need to kind of figure out what is the mechanism so that everybody's always getting the fair shake," he said. "The assignment we've given ourselves is to figure out what's the best approach to go after these events."

But there's a big question mark, he said. "Where does the money come from?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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