A bold idea in bad times pays dividends for Mystic Seaport

The historic whaleship Charles W. Morgan docked at City Pier in New London.
The historic whaleship Charles W. Morgan docked at City Pier in New London. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

The sight on May 17 of thousands of people lining the Mystic River, the shores of Noank, Groton's Avery Point, and New London's City Pier, all to cheer on the Charles W. Morgan as she sailed by, was a moving one.

Who would've thought that an old whaling ship's return to the open water for the first time in 73 years could bring out such emotion, such joy, such enthusiasm among the populace on that morning?

Steve White, that's who.

Five years ago, Steve White arrived at Mystic Seaport as its new president in the darkest of financial times for the institution. As was happening at museums across the country, the recession had cut the Seaport's endowment nearly in half, which drastically reduced spending. But rather than deciding to pull back, as many do in hard times, White saw this bad news as an opportunity to think differently.

"While we were getting smaller, we didn't want to think smaller," White said in an interview in The Day. "... What could be a game changer? ... What are the possibilities? Let's be creative, not just hang our heads."

What White and his advisors came up with was a bold plan that is wildly creative and potentially an enormous game-changer: The Seaport decided to sail the Morgan.

Five years and $12 million later, the Morgan left its berth at Mystic Seaport and was towed to New London, where the finishing touches are being added prior to its leaving on an ambitious summer tour of New England ports. And if the reaction of people in Newport, New Bedford, Martha's Vineyard, Cape Cod, and Boston is anything close to the reaction of those who came out on May 16 (and who have come to City Pier to tour it on weekends since it docked), then this plan will have been enormously successful for the Seaport.

I liken the thinking behind this endeavor to the creativity and daring that Robert Moses employed in the early to mid-20th century, when he was planning New York City's infrastructure, building bridges and creating a network of parkways and a system of public authorities that rivaled no other and that last to this day.

Or how National Geographic, a groundbreaking magazine in its day, saw what was happening to "old" media and reinvented itself across new platforms, including television and the Internet. Sending the Morgan to sea is akin to these kinds of revoluntionary thoughts, as it will bring the Seaport and our region to an entirely new audience.

Sometimes, you have to think bigger than big. The challenge for leaders in tough times, be they economic or other, is to think beyond the immediate scope of the negative and plan and work toward the larger, greater positive. With the Morgan plan, Steve White did just that. He saw how this vessel could be an ambassador for not just the Seaport but for all of Connecticut for years to come, and at enormous risk, he put that vision into play.

He deserves recognition for that, and thanks as well.

Thinking big is what strong leadership is all about. All the economic and political leaders in the state should follow the example of Steve White and his team at Mystic Seaport. It is this kind of bold leadership that will create economic success and jobs for Connecticut.

Tony Sheridan is president and chief executive of Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

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