OPINION: Picture this: A sunny February day with thousands of Southlanders and visitors lining Marine Parade and any other vantage point in Bluff as 30 mighty yachts, including five giant maxis, bank the horizon and sail into Bluff Harbour.
This is the vision of the A2B - Auckland to Bluff Ocean Race - proposed to set sail in February 2014. It will be the longest ocean race ever to start and finish in New Zealand, taking place over an 1100 nautical mile course.
Organisers estimate up to 1000 people will visit the south over a 10-day period in the leadup to and during the celebrations at the finish line.
The yachts will arrive on a weekend, so Southlanders, visitors and people from neighbouring regions will be able to get a first-hand taste of ocean racing at its finest.
Several will be moored at the ferry terminal for the public to access and explore.
Bluff's rustic charm is a big part of the A2B. The organisers are not trying to turn the town into a mini city-of-sails. It will be a race of contrasts, with yachts mirrored in the windows of Auckland's sky-scrapers as they depart, then welcomed into Bluff's unique port-town atmosphere.
It will act as the entry point to Southland, with fly-fishing in Gore, a jaunt through the Catlins, beachcombing at Orepuki, cruising Lake Te Anau and sight-seeing at Milford Sound just some of the gems on offer.
Motels and hotels are likely to be chocker for the duration of the event and direct and indirect employment opportunities will be generated - both short term and as a multiplier.
The injection of extra income will lead to more spending, which creates more income.
There are significant opportunities to be harnessed through investment in marina infrastructure in Bluff. It needs a long-term commitment to a vision that recognises the undoubted potential the port town has.
The promotional opportunities around the A2B race will also be significant.
Television coverage, news stories and positive word of mouth about our region's hospitality and lifestyle present a strong argument for supporting the race.
Race promoter Murray Francis is hardly a stranger to the region, having produced The World's Fastest Indian film and being a driving force behind the Two Little Boys film.
He has a vast knowledge of the best New Zealand has to offer and has put his reputation behind the event, which aims to reinforce New Zealand's international status as a hub of sailing excellence and marine technology.
He is working with SMC Events, the Auckland-based company which helms the hugely successful Ellerslie International Flower Show, Weet-Bix Kids Tryathlon, ASB Polyfest and the annual Teddy Bears' Picnic.
The A2B race will highlight our maritime heritage and pristine environment, and be a vibrant spectator friendly event that everyone can be part of. Bluff has a proud maritime history, as will be recognised with the 20th anniversary of the Bluff Maritime Museum this month, and the race is a logical fit, which will provide the town with a much-needed boost.
In the Sunday Star Times last month an Invercargill real estate agent described the Bluff housing market as "a wee bit bleak". Sales were few and far between, he said.
So does Bluff need a boost? Yes, it does. Bluff has charm, it attracts characters and one day it could boom - but not if the rest of New Zealand remains blind to its potential.
The Bluff Yacht Club has given its support to the race and discussions with important parties such as South Port, local iwi, southern local authorities and possible sponsors are progressing in a positive manner.
In December, Bluff Community Board chairwoman Jan Mitchell told The Southland Times the event would bring significant economic benefits to Bluff and Southland.
The initial idea for the event started in Southland, with Mr Francis then getting involved.
Early support was obtained from interested parties in Southland and Sport New Zealand, and more recently Major Events and the Government.
When approached about the A2B, organisers of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race asked why no-one had thought of it before.
Organisers are hoping northern hemisphere and Australian competitors in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, run a month earlier, will then travel to New Zealand to compete in the A2B race.
A wave of enthusiasm for the event is undeniable, but there are important financial decisions for the community in the south to consider and their support is crucial to the event.
The New Zealand Government has pledged $440,000, and contributions from funders in Auckland and in the south are needed to get the race over the start line.
Mr Francis maintains that Southland's contribution will largely be tagged to infrastructure upgrade - a long-term benefit to Bluff and the region.
A funding application is on the table with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development Limited and Francis says significant corporate sponsors are starting to tap race organisers wanting to be involved. He is talking to a major sponsor about naming rights for the A2B race.
One school of argument says yachties don't come near Bluff. They must have had to look the other way last week when a superyacht owned by Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen cruised into our backyard.
The A2B Auckland-Bluff Ocean Race is an amazing opportunity to showcase the south and invite New Zealand and the world to see why Southland is a fantastic place to live, work and play.
Paul Casson is Venture Southland chief executive.
- The Southland Times
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