Organizers expect 160,000 at ship fest
By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- It is the first time they've charged admission. They're lacking a lead sponsor. And ticket sales need to increase sixteenfold to meet organizers' projections for the first-time festival.
Nevertheless, those putting on the tall ships event, set to kick off Thursday with a ship parade on Tampa Bay, are confident that Americas' Sail 2002 at the Port of St. Petersburg will be well-attended.
This week they significantly increased their paid attendance projections: Now they are looking for 160,000 paid admissions for the three-day festival, which begins Friday.
By Tuesday, they had sold 10,000 tickets in advance.
"I honestly believe people are going to be lined up when we open," said Jack Glasure, president of St. Petersburg Events, the group formed to organize the festival along with the Downtown Partnership.
They point to the last Americas' Sail event, in Savannah, Ga., in 1998. Attendance was huge -- organizers put it at 600,000 to 650,000 people. However, the event was held over the Fourth of July holiday, which typically draws a substantial crowd to the river -- between 350,000 and 400,000 people. And there were 21 ships as opposed to the seven set to arrive in St. Petersburg. And perhaps most significantly, there was no charge for admission.
Ticket prices for the St. Petersburg event range from $8 for an adult advance ticket for festival admission only -- no ship tours -- to $20 for a gate ticket for an adult to get into the festival as well as tour the ships. The St. Petersburg event needs to bring in $900,000 to break even, Glasure said.
Clifford Meads, who ran the event as Savannah's convention and visitors bureau vice president, said he didn't think the admission charge would hold down attendance.
"I know there's probably something of a fear factor on a $20 ticket, but it's a $120 value," Meads said. "I can tell you, these things are absolutely magnificent."
But he also admitted that organizers in Savannah had two years to plan -- St. Petersburg has had six months -- and significant sponsorship, including $50,000 from the convention and visitors bureau.
The lack of a central sponsor, combined with escalating costs for such things as ship operation and security, are the reasons why Americas' Sail agreed to participate in a festival that would charge admission, said the Rev. William F. Wendler, president of Americas' Sail.
"Essentially, what is happening is that those who are enjoying the festival have to bear the expense," Wendler said.
Wendler, who has been a part of Americas' Sail since 1986, said the nonprofit organization's goal was to hold tall ship festivals in the Western Hemisphere every four years to promote international goodwill among nations. Though he is not a sailor, Wendler said his interest in sailing was sparked by a childhood in New York City in which he watched ocean liners enter and leave the city's port.
Wendler, whose eclectic background includes heading a 110-member Methodist church in Glen Cove, N.Y., also is president of a New York state chapter of VOCAL, which stands for Victims of Child Abuse Laws.
Wendler said his activism in this group, which offers assistance to people wrongly accused of child abuse, stems from his own brush with the system. In the early 1980s, he was accused of beating a 14-year-old foster child in his care, a charge that was unfounded, Wendler said.
He said his diverse background is helpful in dealing with people of many cultures -- a key skill in navigating the many countries involved in the series of sail events that are held every four years.
"The tall ships give you a chance to meet people you wouldn't ordinarily meet," he said.
In the St. Petersburg event, there are ships from Brazil and Curacao, as well as five American ships.
And while Americas' Sail typically advises that cities plan for events for two to 2-1/2 years, he thinks St. Petersburg will be able to pull off the event, which originally had been planned for Tampa.
"The organizers in Tampa felt that it was just too large an undertaking," Wendler said. "Before we made other plans, we thought we'd give St. Petersburg the right of first refusal."
The city of St. Petersburg jumped at the chance.
St. Petersburg is forgiving a few thousand dollars in dock fees, but expects payment for the rest of the estimated $36,500 of services the event will need. Police fees of $13,900 are expected before the event begins, said Anita Treiser, St. Petersburg marketing director.
Treiser said she thought 10,000 advance sales tickets was terrific, and that it was difficult to get people to buy tickets ahead of time for anything. She said she expected to see between 30,000 and 50,000 in paid attendance -- in keeping with other popular festivals held in the city, such as Ribfest and Mainsail.
"It's really hard to second-guess a first-time event," she said.
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