Sailfest study shows economic boon to region

Patrons and vendors fill Bank Street during the second day of Sailfest in New London on July 14, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Patrons and vendors fill Bank Street during the second day of Sailfest in New London on July 14, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)

New London — A new study commissioned by the organizers of Sailfest finds that the city’s largest annual event contributes an estimated $58.2 million in economic value to the region.

The study’s findings validate the belief by supporters of the three-day festival run by the Downtown New London Association that the city’s financial contribution is a worthwhile investment. The study falls short, however, of gauging the financial impact on city businesses.

The results of the study were presented to the City Council’s Economic Development Committee this week by the author John Bourget of Witan Intelligence Inc.

The study, which was based on surveys of attendees on each of the three days of the 2018 event, estimates 278,213 people descended on the city this year. The vast majority, 240,409, visited the city on Saturday on the day of a fireworks display.

The study gathered information on demographics, motivations, behaviors and spending patterns. It broke the attendees into parties and estimated that the average party size of 2.5 people spent $348 on food, lodging, shopping, recreation, transportation and casino wagers over the course of the weekend.

Bourget explained that the direct spending totals $38.8 million, which is multiplied by 1.5 to come up with a total for indirect spending. The method is recognized by the University of Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis and widely used in the field of economic impact studies. Bourget said while the $58.2 million figure seems high, it's actually a conservative number since it does not take into account spending related to the event by anyone who did not visit New London, such as onlookers across the river in Groton.

“For the past 41 years, Sailfest has been one of our city’s biggest and longest-running events,” Downtown New London Association President Kip Bochain said in a statement issued with the release of the study.

“We want everyone to know how important Sailfest is for the local economy and I’m thrilled to see the numbers support what we have been saying for years — Sailfest is good for New London,” Bochain said.

City Council President Pro Tempore Don Venditto, chairman of the council’s economic development committee, said the data proves there is a significant fiscal impact on the region.

He also encouraged the Downtown New London Association to “engage in a more localized study next year.”

“It was very much a regional impact study and not specific to New London,” Venditto said. “If they do something like this again, I’d like them to do it just for New London.”

Gathering numbers on the immediate impact to businesses would help the city understand whether the event is “helping or hurting our businesses,” Venditto said.

Barbara Neff, executive director of Sailfest, said the DNLA was considering a second part to the study — a look at economic impact in the city — though it would be another expense for the nonprofit. She said this year’s study cost about $7,000.

In addition to the Witan study, Neff said her own poll of area businesses revealed that some, including the water taxi service, doubled revenues from a typical weekend.

Closer scrutiny of Sailfest by the City Council has come in recent years in part because of tightening budgets. There was a call in 2016 by former City Council President Erica Richardson for a policy change that would shift the costs of the event from the city to outside sponsors.

Those calls, however, were met with opposition by fellow councilors who concluded the event was never meant to be a revenue generator but rather a showcase for the city. The discussion led to more identifiable line items in the budget related to overtime by city employees.

During last year’s budget deliberations, councilors went so far as to consider the cost savings associated with whittling the event to two days. Venditto said it would have a negligible effect, since 85 percent of the overtime costs come on Saturday.

The Sailfest costs provided to the council in 2016 was roughly $200,000. The estimate for 2018 was $125,775, according to figures provided by the city’s finance department. The figure is derived from combining the 2,091 hours of overtime by the police, fire, public works and information technology departments — direct out-of-pocket costs to taxpayers.

The Downtown New London Association contributed $25,000 to the city out of the revenues from the event.

Police officers bore the brunt of the overtime, 979 hours worth, for a total of $56,300 in costs to the city, more than $11,000 over what had been budgeted. Police handled numerous calls related to downtown mischief and arrested seven people in connection with the event. It all came while police were responding to a total of 375 calls throughout the three-day event.

In addition to police officers, firefighters logged 384 hours of overtime for a cost of $16,670 and public works employees worked 627 overtime hours at a cost to the city of $47,958. IT employees logged 100 overtime hours at a cost of $4,845.

The Witan study also revealed that 65 percent of attendees previously had attended Sailfest in the past and on average had been to the event nearly 12 times. Of the people surveyed, 69 percent gave Sailfest high marks, between 8 and 10 on a zero to 10 scale.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Witan Intelligence Inc.

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