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EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta serves as boost to city's economy

| Monday, July 1, 2013, 11:38 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Brad Goll, of Austin Texas, a sculptor with Sandsational Sand Sculpting based in Florida, works on the final touches of a sand sculpture on Monday at Point State Park. The creation, which took 2 weeks to complete and 160 tons of sand, will be on display at the 2013 EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta.

Organizers expect the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta to generate as much as $30 million for local businesses, making it a powerful economic engine among Western Pennsylvania's signature annual events, but it has challenges to remain a top draw.

The three-day affair — billed as the nation's largest inland regatta — shrank after a theft scandal and public funding largely dried up, forcing organizers to lean heavily on private donors to underwrite powerboat races, music and a range of exhibitions and activities in and around Point State Park.

“Most people think we're flush with cash, but we're a nonprofit that operates on pretty thin margins,” regatta board Chairman John Bonassi said.

Bonassi called it “remarkable” that the event remains as large as it does.

In years past, when the regatta was held over as many as 10 days, it secured up to $500,000 annually in state money. Last year, state aid dwindled to $50,000. This year, the regatta won't receive money from Harrisburg for the first time in memory, Bonassi said.

Allegheny County contributed a $50,000 grant that will pay for fencing, signs and security — the only public money for the event.

“We'd be happy to accept funds from the state, but they have gone through some belt-tightening, and we understand that,” Bonassi said.

He'd like for the regatta to partner with the Three Rivers Arts Festival and First Night to make a joint push for state money to support all three events.

“We're open to any partnership that could result in additional funding,” said Shaunda Miles of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, a spokeswoman for the latter events.

The regatta costs $700,000 to $1 million each year, Bonassi said. Major donors this year include Downtown energy company EQT Corp., Rivers Casino on the North Shore, the Downtown-based Colcom Foundation and Trib Total Media.

“We face three challenges virtually every year: How do we keep the event absolutely safe and secure, how do we keep it free, and how do we attract new sponsors to keep it safe and free?” Bonassi said.

The regatta is no stranger to financial trouble.

After the 1997 event, the regatta had a $750,000 deficit and scandal.

Former regatta staffer Ida D'Errico blew the whistle on founder Eugene F. Connelly for misusing more than $200,000 in regatta money. Connelly pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in federal prison. He died in 2009.

Regatta board members hired businessman Jim Roddey, who later became the first Allegheny County executive, to overhaul the event.

“It was a real mess. Somehow, we managed to save it and get it back on track,” Roddey said. “The difference today is that it's solvent, and nobody is stealing money.”

But four years later, with D'Errico as executive director, the regatta nearly went under again when several major sponsors pulled their support months before the event. Corporate donations and state funding kept it afloat.

The regatta, traditionally held in August, moved to the first week of July in 2004 so it could take over the cash-strapped city's annual fireworks display. The state declared Pittsburgh financially distressed in December 2003.

Roddey said he believes the scheduling change “really kept the regatta viable.”

Although it used to draw 1.5 million people and generated an estimated $60 million for the local economy when spread over up to 10 days, Roddey said, “These are different times. I do think as long as you can draw 400,000 to 600,000 people, you will continue to attract sponsors.”

D'Errico, no longer associated with the event, agreed.

“It's always a challenge to raise funds, but the regatta is so unique to our region. It's certainly evolved and changed a bit, but that's OK. It keeps the event fresh,” D'Errico said.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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