Maritime weekend put wind in city's sails

New London - Sails unfurled, anchors hoisted, the ships that docked here for the weekend made for other ports Monday, leaving good feelings and an economic boost in their wake.

Organizers of OpSail 2012 Connecticut and the city's 35th Sailfest street festival declared the weekend an unmitigated success.

"It was a great collaboration," Barbara Neff, Sailfest's executive director, said.

John Johnson, the OpSail chairman, went one better, saying he'd "do it again in a heartbeat."

"It was really an event to push and endorse and encourage tourism, and I think we were incredibly successful in doing that," Johnson said. "We accomplished everything we set out to do economically. People came from far and wide, including a lot who told me they didn't even know this park (Fort Trumbull) existed.

"If nothing else, we put Fort Trumbull on the map, but we certainly did much more than that."

Johnson said he will hire a private firm to study OpSail/Sailfest's economic impact. Until then, the early anecdotal returns suggest it was considerable.

"This was one of the best Sailfests ever," Roderick Cornish, owner of two Bank Street bars, Hot Rod Café and The Pub, said. "Last year, we set a sales record on Sailfest Saturday and this year we beat it by 60 percent. We had one of our strongest Sundays, too."

Cornish said his cafe offered a Sailfest brunch for the first time Saturday, hoping to capitalize on the traffic crowding into the city for that morning's arrival of the OpSail fleet.

"We advertised it on Facebook, opened at 10:30 a.m. and kept on going until 1:30 that night."

A Bank Street gallery owner who'd been wary of Sailfest's effect on retail businesses in the past said her decision to extend her shop's hours over the weekend proved fortuitous.

"It was beyond my expectations," Studio 33's Sara Munro said. "I'm super delighted. I had people say they loved the booth, loved the merchandise and were very excited to pick up something marine related."

While Munro had yet to tally her numbers, she said her Saturday was far better than normal, as was her Sunday, a day she otherwise would have been closed.

For Kim Pettey, owner of the Pinc! Boutique on lower State Street, there was no OpSail/Sailfest windfall.

"It was not a good weekend," she said. "It was busy with people, but very little sales. It's what happened with Sailfest in the past. I thought it would be a different crowd this year, but people weren't shopping."

Surprisingly, however, Pettey's business was booming Monday.

"I've been busy from the minute I opened this morning," she said. "I think I'm one of the few downtown businesses open today."

No hard data on the size of the weekend crowds was immediately available. Many said 900,000, an estimate floated for Friday — the day the OpSail fleet mustered off Niantic — seemed inflated.

"How do you ever really know?" Johnson shrugged.

Neff, the Sailfest chief, said Saturday's turnout was down a bit compared to previous Sailfest Saturdays, perhaps because visitors arrived early to view the Parade of Sail, which arrived in New London about an hour behind schedule.

"They got hot and left - and then it took a while to build back up," she said.

One State Street bar owner dismissed crowd estimates in the hundreds of thousands.

"It felt more like 50,000 to me," Mark Sebastianelli, who owns the Stone Fleet Tavern, said of Saturday's downtown head count. "The crowds we were expecting to see, we didn't see."

Nonetheless, Sebastianelli said his weekend business was about three times what it is normally.

"Saturday we had a great day," he said. "Friday was a little better than average, and we had steady foot traffic through here on Sunday. It was nice."

Johnson said 90 percent of the feedback he's received from the public has been positive. The few complaints, he said, mostly have had to do with the shuttles that transported visitors between such venues as the downtown, Fort Trumbull and State Pier.

"Some said there weren't enough buses and that they weren't holding to schedule," he said. "But I think the shuttles were more than moderately successful - and they were free."

Johnson said fundraising for OpSail, including the state's 50 percent match, will come close to $1 million, about two-thirds the original goal. He said representatives of the national OpSail organization attended events here Friday and Saturday and expressed interest in having New London host future OpSails.

"They'd like us to be involved in the next one, which might be 2015," Johnson said.

Next time, New London shouldn't be the last port on the OpSail tour, as it was this year, he said. And New London's event should be five or six days, not three.

"There's a lot we should be thinking about between now and then."


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