WILMINGTON – Tall Ships are coming to the Port City, if Jeffrey Parker and the Wilmington Harbor Enhancement Trust (WHET) can build enough support.
Tall Ships America (TSA) is a fleet of multi-mast sailing vessels that dock at major cities along the Great Lakes, Atlantic and the Gulf Coast. According to Lock, TSA generated $1.8 billion in tourism in Canada and the United States. The TSA also represented significant educational and cultural opportunities.
Parker held an informal meeting at Ironclad Brewery on Tuesday night, inviting local business members to a joint presentation given by WHET and Tall Ships America. Patricia Lock, who oversees special projects for TSA, explained what would be necessary for Wilmington to bring a Tall Ship to the area.
In May of this year, El Galeon – a Tall Ship from Spain – docked in Wilmington. WHET Treasurer Pam O’Bryan said that, despite brutal temperatures, minimal advertising and no on-site parking, the event was an unqualified success.
“In the hottest August on record 1,000 people visited every day for 10 days. They came from Richmond, Raleigh, and Charlotte. We could do so much for Wilmington and our experience with El Galeon proved that.”
El Galeon operated on a profit-sharing deal that Wilmington organizers with only 10 percent of the profits. Parker and Lock told the crowd that future events with the Tall Ships would likely involve booking vessels and paying a daily fee. This arrangement will generate more revenue for Wilmington businesses but it requires considerable community investment.
When asked about the realistic cost of booking a ship, Lock told the crowd, “It’s not for the faint of heart.” Docking fees can run from $10,000 to $12,000, usually covered by a combination of tickets sales and community funding. Lock said this considerable investment promises equally considerable returns.
Answering questions about raising the necessary funds, Lock emphasized that tickets sales are not in general a problem. She cited the town of Greenport – on Long Island, New York – with a population of 2,500. Greenport drew a reported 125,000 people when they hosted the Tall Ships.
The crucial issue for bring Tall Ships, Parker said, was generating community support.
Terry Espy, president of the Downtown Business Alliance, pledged support for “anything that is good for downtown business.”
“We need to pull the same clientele that Charleston pulls,” Espy said. “We’ve got bars and shops and some great restaurants, but we need to go to the next level. It’s our responsibility to go after awesome, not just great.”
Another logistical hurdle will be creating an organization – what Parker called “an independent, self-propelled entity” – to take on the responsibilities of booking Tall Ships, developing a festival plan and building community support around the ships.
The new entity would, in Parker’s opinion, need 501(c)(3) so that community donations could be tax-deductible, a crucial factor in fundraising.
Parker said he hopes to get Wilmington onto the Tall Ships schedule for May of 2018.
“That sounds like a long way off,” Parker said, “but there’s a lot of planning to do. And, just as importantly, if we don’t do anything for the next year or two or five while we wait for developments in Wilmington and the port and the waterfront, then we’re pushing things even further into the future. So, it could be 2018 or 2025. I think 2018 will take work, but it can definitely be done.”