Published July 11. 2014 4:00AM Updated July 12. 2014 3:39PM
New London - Four days out from the start of the city's 37th Sailfest, the telephone on Barbara Neff's desk is ringing nonstop.
She answers one call about erecting bleachers at one of the downtown entertainment stages and has barely hung up when she fields another call, this one from a woman inquiring about where she can tie up her boat when she arrives this weekend.
Then there are the vendors who are calling to ask for space at the city festival that typically attracts upwards of 300,000 visitors over its three-day run.
Neff tells them the nearly 200 spots are all taken and that vendors started signing up in early spring.
Sailfest, whose origins can be traced to 1976 and the city's one-time Marine Commerce and Development Committee, is Neff's production now.
With the exception of 2000, when the city pre-empted Sailfest in lieu of OpSail 2000, Neff has run the annual weekend-after-July Fourth-festival since 1996.
Today when people think of Sailfest, they think of Barbara Neff.
She's a vocal, unabashed cheerleader for the city and, by nearly all accounts, a whiz at what she does.
The 4-foot-11-inch Neff is not only the executive director of Sailfest sponsor the Downtown New London Association, but she's the city's waterfront coordinator, its dockmaster, a City Center District commissioner, and owner of her own event promotion company, Neff Productions.
"In my experience with downtown New London, nobody cares as passionately as Barbara Neff," said Charlotte Hennegan, a downtown business owner for 40 years. "This woman will go to the end of the mile to fight for whatever she needs for downtown New London to make it work. I have the utmost respect for her and support her wholeheartedly."
Viets Street veteran
Neff, 47, grew up on Viets Street in the city until her family moved to Waterford when she was in middle school. Her mother, Barbara Davis, worked at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital for decades, and her stepfather, Jim Condike, was a businessman with various holdings including Parade News on State Street.
In the late 1980s, Neff, who was taking business classes at the time, took over Parade News and ran it for 20 years until the business closed in 2007.
It was during that time that Neff became interested in Sailfest, which had started to decline after longtime host the Marine Commerce and Development Committee had backed out of running it in 1994. The Downtown New London Association had picked up the responsibility, and in the fall of 1995, Neff was elected president of the group in an effort to re-energize Sailfest.
"All of my best ideas come over a beer and on a napkin," said Neff, recalling her early discussions with Tom Crosby, who owned a Bank Street bar, about getting involved with Sailfest.
The two decided to team up - he would handle the music and she would take care of logistics - and reinvigorate the city's premier summer festival.
"It's really important that people understand this started with good intentions for the community, the people, the businesses - to showcase New London," she said.
For Neff, organized events bring out the best in a community. They unite volunteers, showcase assets, attract visitors, enhance commerce and provide entertainment, she said.
Hennegan, who runs Thames River Greenery and its affiliated businesses, said Neff is a magnet for downtown New London's various causes.
"I think it's an old-fashioned sense of community that doesn't always exist in places where people come and go, and businesses come and go," she said. "But with Barbara, that still exists. She still believes that we are all in this together, and we've got to make it work."
Neff said her success is due in large measure to the people she surrounds herself with.
"I always say I'm not the smartest person in the room, but I do surround myself with the smartest people in a particular field," she said, explaining the volunteer who helps with Sailfest security is a retired lieutenant colonel with the state police.
There are about 35 members on the Sailfest committee, and virtually all of them are volunteers. From 1996 until 2001, Neff ran Sailfest as president of the DNLA and then, after the festival hiatus in 2000, it was agreed she would become the association's executive director and take a percentage of the festival's proceeds.
Today, Sailfest supports itself through vendor fees, sponsorships, donations and partnerships, such as the one with Doolan Amusement Co., which operates the Sailfest amusement rides.
Vendors pay $380 to $480 depending on their location (State or Bank street or City or Custom House pier), and local nonprofits and downtown businesses get a break.
Some of the festival costs include entertainment (there is virtually nonstop music Friday though Sunday on three separate stages), tents, lighting, sound systems, insurance, garbage control, police and fire protection, portable toilets and golf carts for volunteers.
The Saturday night fireworks show is sponsored by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, and this year, the display is dedicated to the planned National Coast Guard Museum in the city and the men and women of the Coast Guard.
Besides the food and merchant vendors and entertainment, there are crafts, amusement rides, karate, dance and juggler demonstrations, a lobster dinner on the waterfront and a road race.
A love for the city
Neff has traveled around the country and abroad to visit other festivals, meet with organizers and learn all she can about promoting New London.
Beyond Sailfest, and in her other capacity as the city's waterfront coordinator, she's helped to create, or support, other downtown waterfront events such as the recently held in-water boat show; the Nimble Arts Circus (Aug. 9), the food truck festival (Aug. 16), Caribbean Night (Aug. 23), the Kansas City BBQ competition (Sept. 28), and Halloween Town (Oct. 24).
Her goal, she said, is to bring people together and showcase the city through events.
"Barbara loves New London, she realized we have a fantastic waterfront, a great city, and her heart is in it," said Marie Gravell, a decades-long Sailfest volunteer who said Neff has taken the Sailfest concept and expanded on it.
"Sailfest was once a year. It was a big event, but then it ended. But Barbara, she's able to continue it with other events that open the curtain for the city," Gravell said. "She's very creative, and she's able to draw people downtown throughout the whole summer."
"She's working on a skeleton budget; it's ridiculous how little money she has to work with," Hennegan said.
"But she always puts her heart into whatever it is, and she puts the best spin on it. And she knows with her knowledge of festivals that it takes time. She'll try something, and she knows it's going to take another year, and then another year, to gain momentum."
Neff knows not everyone is a fan of some of her events, but she said she's learned to shrug off criticism.
"I used to take it personally, but not anymore," she said.
She knows, too, she can't always please everyone, like Sailfest 2013, when it was too late to call off the fireworks when fog rolled in at the last minute.
"Just when you think you have everything down, something gets thrown in the mix," she said.
And she smiles when asked if she knows that some people are afraid of her.
"I hope so," she said. "Fear is a good thing if you know how to use it."
And that booming voice: "I'm not yelling, I'm passionate," said Neff, explaining she's Italian and Portuguese.
She lives downtown, on Starr Street, in one of two houses she owns there. And she and her Shar-Pei, Pearl E. Girl, are fixtures around the city.
She's good at what she does, she said, because she's honest, a stickler for following rules, has a strong work ethic, and is incredibly organized.
But mostly, she said it's about hosting events to bring people together in New London.
"I love the people in this city. I love the heart of the city. It's all about community," she said. "And I believe events bring out the best in people and the community."