Gustavson Column: This is the wrong weekend for Tall Ships

(Credit: File photo)

“What do they want me to do, dress up like Donald Duck and wave to the crowd…” —David Kapell

Back in the day, in the late ’70s, I was involved in founding and organizing something called The Great North Fork Foot Race. In the early years, the race started in “downtown” Greenport and was thus criticized by some village merchants because Front and Main streets were closed to vehicular traffic during the start. For 10 minutes. On the weekend before Memorial Day.

Fast-forward to the July 4th weekend of 2015, when significant portions of Front and Main streets will be closed for eight hours a day for four days in connection with the Greenport Tall Ships Challenge 2015.

Had this year’s event been proposed during the administrations of Joe Townsend Jr., George Hubbard Sr., Steve Clarke or even David Kapell, it would have made very good sense. The village sorely needed to be promoted back then, even on holiday weekends. But in 2015, in the new and improved Greenport, on the otherwise busiest weekend of the year? I’m not so sure. (In fairness, I should note that Greenport officials did not have a say on the date the event would be held. It has to fit with the Tall Ships of America Challenge, which is stopping here between its stays in New York City and Newport, R.I.)

I also was involved in the formation of the Greenport Maritime Festival in the late ’80s, and we deliberately chose mid- to late September in order to extend “the season” beyond Labor Day. But does it make good sense to invite 40,000 visitors to the village on a midsummer weekend when “the average merchant can hardly do any more business than they already do,” in the words of one village merchant I spoke to this week? Again, I’m not so sure.

There are many, many good reasons for inviting the tall ships to Greenport. As one longtime village resident I surveyed put it: “I for one am looking forward to seeing [the tall ships] and having such magnificence come to me. Now there is really no need to leave the North Fork.”

The event also is clearly consistent with the village’s proud maritime heritage, which goes back hundreds of years and includes, more recently, the Regina Maris, the Simon Bolivar, America’s Sail and the tall ships races. And there’s no doubt, barring a weather catastrophe, that certain local businesses — restaurants, gift shops and the like — will benefit significantly. But what about the core businesses like the IGA and Colonial Drugs and Hoppy’s Cleaners? How will they fare when their regular customers are forced to walk several blocks to access them? For four days.

I asked Dave Kapell about this, largely because of his unique perspective as a former mayor and current business owner. And this is what he had to say: “I might as well shut [my antiques business] down. We’re used to it because of the Maritime Festival, and that event essentially shuts my business down. It’s one thing to do it the last weekend of September, but another on the Fourth of July. And this thing is four days long.”

He continued: “And if I don’t utilize the space in front of my business, they may rent it to an outside vendor. What do they want me to do, dress up like Donald Duck and wave to the crowd as it goes by?”

Another village merchant, Shelley Scoggin of The Market health food store, wrote in an email: “I will lose my big grocery shoppers, but I’m sure we will make a lot of money, but with a more intense crowd. One sandwich at a time … I hope the village is making money on this.”

Oh, yes, the money. As I understand it, the Village of Greenport is fronting $275,000 (of taxpayers’ dollars) to bring in the six tall ships, with the Business Improvement District committed to covering $100,000 of that amount via sponsorship fees. The village also will collect all revenues from ticket sales (ranging from $5 to $15 per ticket) and vendor fees (at $375 to $500 per day for food vendors, depending on the size of their booth; $250 per day for artisan/craft vendors; and $75 per day for nonprofit vendors). If the crowd estimates are accurate — an average 10,000 visitors a day over four days — the village’s investment may well turn out to be financially prudent, and that doesn’t take into account the goodwill generated and the fact that potentially thousands of first-time visitors will be introduced to the myriad attractions of Greenport.

But what if, as one of my friends has suggested, instead of investing in gala events like the tall ships fest, the village made comparable tourism-friendly investments in beautification, litter control, additional public parking and restrooms? Wouldn’t that be more beneficial in the long run?

I really, truly hope the Greenport Tall Ships Challenge 2015 is a huge success. I hope to view the procession of ships as they enter and depart the harbor, but, like most of the “locals” I’ve talked to, I’ll be avoiding Greenport’s business district that weekend.

TR080609_Gustavson_RThe author is the former co-owner and publisher of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].