Having seen it the other day, I just don't know whether the Tarheel Regatta should be run on Lake Wheeler, the pretty little lake that Raleigh owns in southern Wake County. What is clear is that one side in the argument, the Optimist Club of Raleigh, is from Mars. The other side, John Argentati and the 385 people who signed his petition against the regatta is from--oh, let's say, France.
The Optimists have sponsored the regatta--one in a series put on by the American Power Boat Association--for 33 years. They arrange the sponsors, sell the ads, collect admission and parking fees--even race a boat or two. The $20,000 or so they net helps pay for one college scholarship at every Wake County high school.
Argentati wants the event moved. Lake Wheeler, just 650 acres, drains Swift Creek and Dutchmen's Creek as they come out of the southwest. It also feeds Lake Benson, which in the future will supply drinking water to Raleigh. The speedboats, Argentati fears, are polluting the water.
And the noise! Argentati can see seven blue heron nests with a telescope from the window of his house on Dutchman's Creek. Eagles nest on Lake Benson, he says. But what self-respecting bird would nest within earshot of the 100- to 110-decibel roar that hits the shoreline when the "modifieds" charge by at speeds of up to 130 mph?
To the Optimists, Lake Wheeler is perfect because it's so small and the trees shield the boats from the wind. And they're pretty darned sure the boats don't pollute the water. Outboard engines would, but these boats run inboards and a lot of them burn pure alcohol. Test the water quality before and after the race, says Wayne Marshall, an Optimist trustee and chair of the Raleigh Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, adding, "We need facts, not just philosophy."
Fine, Argentati replies. But let's do a complete environmental assessment of what the two-day event does to the lake ecosystem and Lake Wheeler Park, which is mowed each year so that several thousand spectators can see the regatta better.
And across the generational divide they argue. Because that's what this fight is: Argentati and his friends in the Sierra Club and other local environmental groups are young and vigorous--most of them--and they believe in participatory sports. Argentati is 37, a hiker, kayaker and wind-surfer. He thinks the Optimists, to raise money for youth programs, would be better advised to run "an environmentally responsible event that youth could participate in."
On the other hand, Marshall and his Optimists are, uh, older. Again, not all of them. But it pains Marshall that his organization is aging out, struggling to keep 100 members when it used to have 150. "The under-40s just won't talk to us," he says. "They're into their computers, into hiking. I dunno. They just don't join the civic clubs anymore."
It's all the Optimists can do to sponsor an event that comes to Raleigh ready-made. Ginning up a youth event from scratch would be tough given their thinning numbers.
But what if Argentati and his enviro-friends helped out? Now there's a thought, Argentati says. And Marshall, though not persuaded one bit that the regatta is a polluter, nonetheless realizes that in recent years, the number of racers has dropped from 125 to 70. Maybe gas-guzzling powerboats aren't the best way to support kids.
The Optimist Club is a proud organization, but it is 52 years old. If it's going to be true to its mission, it will have to change, Marshall says. "We have to ask ourselves, what would our founders have done?"
For sure, they'd have looked to the Optimist Creed: "Look at the sunny side of everything," it says, and "press on to the greater achievements of the future."