Maritime Heritage Tourism Events and Public Safety Costs

The Providence Journal reported earlier this week that the Tall Ships event that will be visiting Rhode Island may not receive any support from the state. (Tall Ships event may set sail in July without state money by Lynn Arditi) It seems that the legislature rejected part of the governor’s budget that would have covered public safety and emergency management expenses.

None of this is very surprising but it is pretty sad. As things go its probably as much about Rhode Island politics as anything else and in the end it will probably all work itself out. However, organizing events like this is incredibly stressful and risky and those who work hard in bringing a valuable, contributing enterprise to the state deserve better.

First of all, the TALL SHIPS CHALLENGE will draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from outside the state to experience the spectacle first hand. Each of these visitors will spend significant funds in Newport and throughout the rest of the state. It is safe to say that much of this incremental revenue and the attendant taxes would not be earned without the visit of the tall ships.

Maritime heritage events like the TALL SHIPS CHALLENGE help cities brand themselves. Heritage tourism is big. Visitors stay longer and spend more money. 

Clearly the Ocean State and Newport, the “City by the Sea,” have a lot invested in establishing themselves as maritime heritage tourism destinations. The fact of the matter is that the 1976 Bicentennial Tall Ships event marked a major turning point in Newport’s history. After that remarkable event, local leaders recognized the power of bringing tourists into a city that was adrift and searching for solutions after the Navy fleet departed in 1973. On the heels of the tall ships, the Americas Cup came (and went) and Newport would thereafter be recognized as one of America’s top sailing cities and tourist destinations.

Of course, events like the TALL SHIPS CHALLENGE come with costs but so do libraries, parks, museums, schools and even roads. A city like Newport and a state like Rhode Island should recognize the incredible short and long term effects of hosting these types of events and be ready to front the cost for public safety and security. If they don’t become contributing partners, these events will not come in the future and that would be a shame on so many levels.

The chairman of Tall Ships Rhode Island, Admiral Thomas Weschler was quoted as saying that this summer’s event will generate over $1,000,000 in tax revenues for the state which is many times the public safety costs presented.

Up until December 2006, I was executive director of the American Sail Training Association (ASTA), a nonprofit founded in 1973 in Newport in part to bring the Bicentennial Tall Ships event to America three years later. ASTA launched the TALL SHIPS CHALLENGE Series in 2001 and since that time it visited approximately 40 cities across North America bringing 8 million spectators down to the waterfront and generating over $400 million of economic impact for host communities in the process. This is a remarkable fact that is little known in ASTA’s hometown and state.

I hope that Rhode Island legislators wake up and recognize the importance of these types of events to the state and region and become a contributing partner in making sure that the tall ships (and their hundreds of thousands of fans) don’t sail by their small state in the future.

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Peter A. Mello

Father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

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