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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    More New London in Sailfest, please

    The city is where the festival’s DNA comes from, after all.

    This was the year that Sailfest came back. Like an old friendship, the annual summer extravaganza picked up where it left off before the pandemic threw cold water on the hoopla for two years.

    Congratulations to the City of New London, Barbara Neff and her team of volunteers, and to the public safety departments that kept things orderly. Kudos to the Thames River Heritage Park, Hygienic Art, the New London Maritime Society and other anchors of downtown tourism. A heartfelt cheer for the generosity of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which continues to sponsor the hands-down favorite fireworks display in Connecticut. The beautiful evening made the lights-and-sound show over the Thames River spangle.

    Not to take anything away from a successful Sailfest and the much-needed pleasure it gave to thousands of people, it’s worth thinking about how to make the festival even better in years to come. The best way, we suggest, is to put more New London in Sailfest. That’s where its DNA comes from, after all.

    Any community that is fortunate enough to have a cadre of dedicated organizers can put on a carnival and invite street vendors – the same vendors who will be at another event next week. But Sailfest doesn’t happen at a fairgrounds set aside for one week or weekend of fun per year. It is an urban fair that takes its flavor from a city, like Carnival. This city happens to be a port near the mouth of a river and the site of some of America’s early history and architecture. It is home base for indigenous people, immigrants and the military sea services. New London keeps on reprising those themes in real time.

    So start from the ground up. We encourage the organizers and city officials to consult with the local participants about how it went for them and what they heard from the visitors. Did guests patronize local establishments? Did they get the flavor of the city?

    For many years, as an example, restaurant and bar owners have given Sailfest mixed reviews for the uneven volume of business they do during what would otherwise be a prime summer weekend. Did the crowds by and large walk right by the bricks-and-mortar businesses to the brats and the bangles? Can that field be leveled for the locals?

    There can hardly be too much live entertainment. Audiences this year went and stayed for hours at the Hygienic Park, so how about more of those local musicians and more of everything – jazz, rap, drumming, bagpipes, tunes for dancing in the streets? Keep alive the tradition of youth dance teams and ethnic group performances.

    And because this is a city by the saltwater, let Sailfest live up to its name. Follow the lead of the Thames River Heritage Park and the Custom House and increase the participation of boats and ships and opportunities for visitors to go aboard. Starting with OpSail 2000 and in many summers since, Groton had Subfest and New London hosted marine-related festivals with components that could serve as blueprints.

    For a lot of folks in Connecticut and neighboring states, Sailfest is what they know about New London, and that’s great. But there is a lot more to know and a lot of fun could be had hosting or visiting a Sailfest that celebrates the uniqueness of its hometown.

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