Published June 06. 2014 4:00AM
A nonprofit organization that produces a tall ship festival in Bay City, Mich., has placed a lien on the schooner Amistad because Amistad America has failed to return the $7,500 deposit it received to appear at the festival's 2010 edition but never attended.
Shirley Roberts, the event coordinator of the festival, said Thursday that she and the chairman of her organization had e-mail and phone conversations with former Amistad America executive director Greg Belanger, who she said always promised to repay the money with interest but never did. She said that contact ended in March 2013.
"We sort of gave up hope," she said about recovering the money.
But then she heard about the efforts of state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who has been pressing Amistad America, which has received more than $8 million in state funding, to make good on its debts to small businesses and other organizations. The state continues to provide $360,000 a year in funding for the ship's operation even though it is now based at a Maine organization headed by Belanger. The ship is slated to spend the summer in Connecticut.
Roberts had followed media reports about the ship's financial troubles and recently read an article in The Day that Amistad America is making a "good-faith payment" of $500 this week to a Norwich screen printing and embroidery firm that it owes more than $7,000 dating back to 2006.
On Wednesday, Roberts sent an email to current Amistad America Executive Director Hanifa Washington again seeking to be paid.
She said Thursday afternoon that Washington had replied but they had not been able to connect yet by phone. She said she appreciated Washington reaching out to her.
In addition to running the tall ship festival, Roberts is also the executive director of BaySail, a nonprofit organization that operates two schooners involved in maritime history and environmental education programs of the Great Lakes and sail training. Unlike Amistad America, her organization receives no state funding and relies on grants, program revenue and memberships.
"Our mission is very similar to the freedom schooner Amistad, so we did not take this action lightly. We'd have preferred not to have gone here," she said about the lien, which was placed on the ship through the Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center.
Roberts said she has learned that other entities owed money by Amistad America have also placed liens on the ship, which means it cannot be sold without the debts being repaid. A list of those liens could not be immediately determined as the documentation center was not taking phone calls on Thursday.
Roberts said one of the reasons the tall ship festival went forward with the action is that Amistad America made full or partial restitution to all of the Great Lakes cities it planned to visit on its 2010 tour, except Bay City.
"We don't understand it. No one could explain it other than 'we ran out of money,' " she said.
Roberts said she hopes Amistad America can straighten out its finances and continue "to sail and deliver her powerful message to people around the world."
"But a lot of damage needs to be repaired," she said.
In her email to Washington, Roberts wrote that her organization has been following the progress of Amistad America and "is pleased to know that the ship is in good repair and enjoying lucrative film contracts, port agreements and support from the great state of Connecticut."
Amistad America has said it was paid $250,000 to film the new NBC series "Blackbeard" in Puerto Rico this past winter. This spring the ship was used to film a Canadian Broadcasting Co. program in Nova Scotia.
"Based on this latest information, we assume you are now in a position to repay the debt you owe Tall Ship Celebration: Bay City," she wrote.
"Your predecessor, Greg Belanger, acknowledged this debt and agreed to pay it with interest. No payment has been received and communication with Mr. Belanger ceased in March of 2013. Now that you appear to have turned the corner and are once again profitable, we reiterate our request for reimbursement of our original $7,500 deposit plus interest (total to be determined when we know for a certainty that payment is actually forthcoming)," continued Roberts.
Then she added, "WHEN WE RECEIVE YOUR CHECK, WE WILL BE HAPPY TO REMOVE THE LIEN FROM YOUR SHIP."
Amistad America lost its tax-exempt status for failing to file federal tax returns and is the target of a state audit to determine how it spent millions in state funding under Belanger's direction.