By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Contenders for the 34th America's Cup have filled miles of prized San Francisco waterfront property with their yachts and tents and built villages of stores and cafes for a summer of racing that has been heralded as a boon to the local economy.
Now, four days before the competition starts, visitors hoping to mingle with the world's top sailors may instead rub shoulders with an inflatable 14-foot-tall fat cat erected by the local carpenter's union in the middle of regatta real estate to protest that members have been given fewer jobs than promised.
The big grey rubbery animal holds a blow-up construction worker by the neck and stands next to a sign that reads: "America's Cup hurts workers, family and community. Shame on them."
The message may be lost on passing tourists. But many San Franciscans have expressed mixed feelings about the America's Cup.
Some, including union workers, are drawn by the promise of thousands of new jobs. But the world's premier sailing event also comes off as exclusive affair for billionaires, like Oracle's Larry Ellison, who won the prize in 2010 and brought it to the United States for the first time since 1995.
Teams from Italy, New Zealand and Sweden will challenge Ellison for the world's oldest sporting trophy in races scheduled to start Sunday.
Opening ceremonies begin Thursday - not quite two months after Olympic gold medalist Andrew Simpson was killed when Sweden's 72-foot high-tech catamaran capsized and broke apart in a training run. The tragedy has cast a cloud over this year's event, along with legal wrangling over race rules and deflated expectations about the regatta's benefits to San Francisco.
The carpenters' union lobbied San Francisco supervisors to allow the international event to be held on city property in the belief it would bring 9,000 jobs, said Adrian Simi, a field representative for the local. But barely more than a handful of his workers are working on the event, Simi told Reuters.
"Their promise to put local carpenters to work is completely a sham," he said. "They've made the San Francisco waterfront a playground for the rich and famous."
Tom Ehman, spokesman for the America's Cup Event Authority, said his organization has done everything it can to pump money into the local economy and support union workers.
"We have absolutely bent over backwards to do the right thing by way of all the unions," he told Reuters. "We very definitely are using union labor and lots of it. The unions have done a fabulous job."
Workers for another union have performed work that carpenters' union employees, who earn more, believed should have been theirs, Simi said. Journeyman carpenters make $64 an hour, including benefits.
City officials initially estimated the competition would bring three million visitors, $1.4 billion in revenue and 8,800 jobs to San Francisco this summer.
Initial estimates assumed as many as 12 boats would compete for the right to race against Oracle. With serious competitors spending upwards of $100 million apiece, though, only three teams took up the challenge.
Most recent figures estimate the regatta will attract two million visitors and generate $900 million in revenue and 6,500 jobs. Sullivan said the city cannot calculate the number of jobs and dollars the races will bring to San Francisco until they are finished.
City documents show that a contractor underpaid construction workers building infrastructure for the event last year. Carpenters were supposed to earn the so-called prevailing wage of $64 but pocketed about $460,000 less than they should have.
Sullivan said agreements to pay prevailing wages now are being met.
She also pointed to a job fair where hundreds of workers are being hired to work concessions as proof of the boon to the economy. On Tuesday afternoon, the majority of the job applicants were students from Ireland on four-month work visas.
"We'll take anything," said Mark Murray, 22, of Dublin as he filled out an employment application. "Need some dollars, as they say."
Nearby, Jason Haylor pedaled a lime green bicycle taxi. In the one and a half years he's been driving the Pedicab along the waterfront, the 34-year-old San Franciscan said, he has picked up only one passenger, an Italian architect, related to the America's Cup.
Mac Leibert, manager of the Pier 23 Cafe, did credit the event with bringing visitors to the area.
"It doesn't hurt being right at ground zero for the America's Cup to put your restaurant on the map," he told Reuters. "It's brought business and interest to this part of the city."
(Editing by Alden Bentley)