State says it's willing to pitch in for OpSail

New London - The city's OpSail organizers snagged a crucial funding commitment Tuesday from the state, which offered up to $500,000 in matching funds to bring the sailing extravaganza back to the city this summer.

But to obtain the full half-million, local organizers will need to hustle.

In a letter to OpSail2012CT Chairman John Johnson, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget chief said the size of the state contribution depends on how much the OpSail committee raises on its own.

For every $2 in local fundraising, the state would contribute $1, up to the $500,000 maximum.

"The state has had to make many sacrifices over the past year in order to balance our budget, and we must continue to diligently manage every resource," budget chief Ben Barnes wrote. "At the same time, Governor Malloy has made clear that he is committed to investing in Connecticut tourism and to stimulating local economic growth. We believe that OpSail2012 will be a valuable tool in that regard."

Organizers have raised about $350,000 since the fall to be a host site for the national maritime celebration, with a goal of raising $1 million. With the state's new match offer, the total goal becomes $1.5 million. The city pledged a loan of $50,000 to get OpSail planning under way. Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of this article.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said he welcomes the new funding.

"I thank the state for their contribution, and wish they could do more, but I understand that times are tough all around," Finizio said in a statement.

Johnson said he now anticipates a burst of donations, as many potential contributors were waiting for the state's move. Without state money, he said, New London might have bowed out of OpSail this year.

"I think it's very generous on the part of the governor," Johnson said Tuesday.

Yet the contribution is less generous than what the state put in 12 years ago, when Connecticut spent $6.2 million to make New London an OpSail 2000 port of call. However, a portion of that funding was for waterfront improvements and rebuilding piers.

That year, an estimated 900,000 people visited New London over three days to watch the international flotilla of tall masts and square sails. Some called it the state's biggest tourism draw of the decade. Organizers later returned an unspent $1.4 million to the state.

Johnson said the Malloy administration's offer reflects what they requested, knowing that finances are tighter now than they were in 2000.

"We weren't looking for a handout," Johnson said, referring to the matched-contribution deal. "I wanted us to work twice as hard as the state to get this."

The chairman said it is "very possible" that the committee could raise $1 million in time, but added that he doesn't know whether that goal is "probable." The money would cover the costs of hosting the ships, hiring event planners, bringing in entertainment and doing marketing and promotions.

The tall ships are to set sail April 17 for several U.S. cities, ending in New London July 6 to 9. The city is once again the smallest of the ports, which include New York and Boston.

New London has played a role in two of the five OpSail stagings since the event's 1964 inaugural, when seven square-riggers tied up in Connecticut on an invitation from the New London Area Chamber of Commerce. The local budget for that year, according to news reports, was roughly $20,000.

This summer's OpSail - New London's third - will mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the writing of the "The Star-Spangled Banner." Local organizers are hoping for 500,000 to 750,000 visitors to the city.

j.reindl@theday.com

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