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Originally published August 8, 2013 at 9:10 PM | Page modified August 9, 2013 at 10:41 PM

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Is Seafair sinking? Down year fires up debate on its fate

A big drop in attendance this year at the Seafair hydroplane races on Lake Washington can be linked in part to the lack of the Blue Angels. But other issues and suggestions to improve the event have been raised.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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With paid attendance for last weekend’s hydro races plummeting 27 percent from 2012, there is plenty of second-guessing about the future of Seafair.

Has it become a tired relic of Seattle’s past since its small-town beginnings in 1950 that included stuff like a “Huckleberry Finn fishing rodeo?”

Not so fast, says Beth Knox, president and CEO of Seafair.

“The reality is that event attendance has cycles. Bumbershoot is the same way, even the fireworks show. We all have peaks and valleys,” she says. “Seafair has been around for 64 years for a reason. We have adapted.”

The absence of the Blue Angels, their appearance canceled because of the federal sequester, had a lot to do with the attendance drop. Rain on Friday also didn’t help.

Says Mercer Island Police Cmdr. Leslie Burns, “I’ve been here 17 years, and it was the quietest that I’ve ever seen it. There was a lack of boat traffic. Nobody was out there. It was down about 75 percent from last year.”

Official attendance was 115,000 this year, including paid attendance and guests “for corporate hospitality,” says Knox. That’s down from 158,000 in 2012, and about 15,000 below the average of the previous five years.

Knox estimates total attendance for last weekend’s events at 300,000.

Now for some, like Dan Savage, editorial director of The Stranger, Seafair’s decline is acceptable collateral damage from losing the Blue Angels, whose noisy routines he famously hates.

“I’m glad they’re history,” he said. “[It’s the] only upside for me personally from the sequester.”

But the good news for Seafair is that it still holds plenty of good will among locals. Longtime Seafair watchers offered a variety of suggestions for a tradition that still holds a deeply emotional bond:

• Pray that the sequester ends and the Blue Angels are back flying between hydro-race heats next year.

• Cut ticket prices to watch the races from shore so a family of four isn’t set back $80.

• Cut by half the log-boom fees that can reach $600.

• Bring in musical acts like you see at the Capitol Hill Block Party.

• Create excitement by holding, say, a parade along Lake Washington Boulevard South on race morning featuring local celebrities such as Russell Wilson, Macklemore, the mayor, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Paul Allen.

Mark Long, 55, who owns The Attic Alehouse and Eatery in Madison Park, lived in the Seward Park area for 16 years. He remembers pulling a toy hydroplane behind his bike as a kid. Married, with three kids, he now lives in Lake Stevens.

He does the math for going to one of the hydro races: $30 tickets for adults (day of the event), $10 for kids 6-12 (under 5, free).

“They are overpriced. Then it’s a $6 or $8 beer at the beer garden. It adds up,” says Long. “They nickel and dime you, like the pit pass ($10).”

And, he says, “It’s overregulated. They need to allow young adults freedom to party reasonably.”

Jeff Nord, 50, who works in software and lives in Bellevue but grew up in the Mount Baker neighborhood, remembers as a youth getting together with buddies and making a one-day raft out of 55-gallon barrels and plywood.

“Seafair wasn’t about the hydros. It was about the party and the opportunity to hang out with friends,” he says.

Then, he says, the neighborhood worked with the city to clamp down, with the cops setting up all-night perimeters to keep out the crowds that would congregate outside hydro-racing hours.

Married, with two children, Nord says his family still goes to the event, but only because his mom still lives in Mount Baker and gets free passes given to residents there.

Nord wants the event to loosen up. He says he’d like to see prime seating available to the public, not just corporate donors.

And, “I don’t know how you do this, but there has to be a reasonable alcohol policy,” he says.

This past weekend, police contacted 473 vessels and made 34 arrests for boating under the influence.

Knox says the cops are trying to keep the event safe.

As for calls to “loosen up,” she says, “The world is no longer in that place post-9/11. You cannot have a free-for-all or loose and casual.”

Lynne Goodrich, 57, a 17-year Seward Park-area resident with a husband and teen daughter, says the neighborhood “is a very urban setting” and the races “are like this weird parallel universe.”

“Why do I want to go to the park to look at appliances or commercial booths like insurance companies?” she says. “Why do I want to pay for food vendors that are mediocre at best? They should go to Folklife or the Fremont Fair and check out their vendors. Why can’t they have some local music instead of cover bands?”

Knox counters that the event is actually quite reasonably priced.

“Go to a Mariners game and see if they can do it for less. We work really hard to keep events free or affordable.”

She says it costs about $3.8 million to put on some 75 events over eight weeks.

“They don’t want Seafair to be commercial, but they want prices to be low,” Knox says. “To keep a $20 (advance) ticket price, I have to have sponsors.”

Still, the questions about prices keep coming up.

There is Tom Hill, 58, past commodore of the Rainier Yacht Club whose business is financing pleasure boats.

“I’ve been to Seafair for over 25 years. I bailed out three years ago, when the yellow section at the log boom (for boats 28-60 feet long) went to $600. Even when it was $450 I had a problem,” he says. “Most boaters are family people trying to make ends meet.”

Hill says log-boom prices went up during the recent recession.

“I guess they don’t realize how market forces work,” he says. “They need to cut log-boom prices in half, then they’d get three times as many people, and make a third more money.”

According to Knox, the log-boom was 80 percent filled this year with 300 to 400 boats.

She says that in previous years it has been sold out.

“It’s no different than Seahawks hospitality suites,” she says. “It’s supply and demand.”

Knox will have a hard time explaining that to Jeff Nord.

He says, “They need to go back to how it used to be, a community party. Everyone would turn to everyone else and say, ‘Who won the race?’ Nobody knew.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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