Maritime festival organizers contemplating event's future

The schooners Columbia, left, and Mystic Whaler race for the first mark in the Connecticut Martime Heritage Festival schooner race Sept. 10, 2017. The two schooners were joined by Mystic Seaport's schooner Brilliant for the race.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The schooners Columbia, left, and Mystic Whaler race for the first mark in the Connecticut Martime Heritage Festival schooner race Sept. 10, 2017. The two schooners were joined by Mystic Seaport's schooner Brilliant for the race. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — Less than two months ago, the 5th annual Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival drew thousands of people to the city’s waterfront, spurring an estimated $84,000 in direct economic activity, organizers of the three-day event reported Tuesday.

Still, the question they’re now pondering is whether there will be a sixth annual festival.

“We’re trying to assess where we go from here,” said Bruce MacDonald, the festival’s chief operating officer. “We did this on a shoestring last year (2017), without state assistance, and if we’re going to continue making this investment in the city, we’re going to need help. We need money to bring in ships.”

A descendant of OpSail Connecticut events staged here in 2000 and 2012, this year’s maritime heritage festival, held Sept. 8-10, featured the USS Cole, a guided-missile destroyer that docked at Fort Trumbull State Park, and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Thunder Bay. More than 6,000 visitors toured the Cole, festival organizers say.

Total attendance for the festival was hard to calculate, MacDonald said, because the festival is not a ticketed event and there are several points of entry. But, he said, it’s safe to say the head count was “a multiple” of the number who toured the Cole.

MacDonald determined that direct spending on ship-related expenses and retail vendor sales during the festival amounted to $65,855. Festival expenditures for goods and services, including advertising, public relations, website management and materials related to the Great New London Chowder Challenge, generated another $18,100 in spending.

The sums don’t include the additional business downtown bars and restaurants did during the event, MacDonald said.

Mayor Michael Passero issued a statement that's included in the festival organizers’ report.

“The Maritime Heritage Festival, and especially the port visits by USS Cole and the Coast Guard’s Thunder Bay and two other cutters absolutely transformed our city for the weekend,” he said. “The positive economic impact was significant. Most remarkable was experiencing the Waterfront District and downtown businesses filled with hundreds of sailors on liberty."

Despite such testimonials, the festival will be hard-pressed to continue unless it can widen its base of support, MacDonald said.

The Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative, which served as the title sponsor of this year’s event, has agreed to fill the same role again next year. Other key sponsors this year were Atlantic Broadband, Starkweather & Shepley Insurance Brokerage, Crocker’s Boatyard and F & F Distributors.

“Going forward, we’re going to need more help,” MacDonald said. “We’ve got some decisions to make.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Damage Controlman 3rd Class Hannah Sweet helps Khyree Jenkins, 8, of Baltic try on a fire helmet on the USS Cole at Fort Trumbull on Sept. 9, 2017, during the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival in New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Damage Controlman 3rd Class Hannah Sweet helps Khyree Jenkins, 8, of Baltic try on a fire helmet on the USS Cole at Fort Trumbull on Sept. 9, 2017, during the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival in New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
A Coast Guard search and rescue demonstration is held on the Thames River with a helicopter and small boat on Sept. 9, 2017, during the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival in New London. The annual festival, featuring U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels along with tall ships, continues on Sunday with the Morgan Cup Challenge beginning at noon. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
A Coast Guard search and rescue demonstration is held on the Thames River with a helicopter and small boat on Sept. 9, 2017, during the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival in New London. The annual festival, featuring U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels along with tall ships, continues on Sunday with the Morgan Cup Challenge beginning at noon. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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