City pondering maritime festival
If Gary Anderson gets his way, next year the narrows of the St. Johns River will be alive with double-masted schooners, speedy sloops and a slew of smaller skipjacks. Anderson dreams of developing a maritime festival called RiverFest, which would bring tall sailing ships downtown for a weekend’s worth of salty celebration.
Anderson once crewed aboard an old wooden sailing ship and also helped develop Norfolk’s Harborfest in the late 1970s. Now a project manager with engineering firm PBS&J, he doesn’t see the sea as much as he used to, but he still thinks back to his sailor days with fond memories. Add to that the level of excitement and popularity the Harborfest has generated in the 25 years since its inception and Anderson sees a prime opportunity.
“After years of driving across the Main Street Bridge, I thought we needed some all-encompassing celebration of the river and the sea in Jacksonville,” said Anderson.
He’d been mulling it over for years, but he said the idea really jelled once he joined the City’s Waterways Commission, where it attracted the attention of commission chair and City Council member Lynette Self. She bought into the idea and is pressing forward to bring it to fruition by late spring next year.
“We’re trying to put it together so it’s a festival to celebrate our river,” said Self. “We’re trying to bring in anywhere from three to five tall ships the first year. They would be an attraction to bring people to the river. But that’s not the only thing you have going.”
RiverFest would mirror other maritime festivals, like Harborfest and others in Boston and Baltimore. There would be live entertainment, art shows, educational events, dining, shopping and other nautical nuances. While hundreds of thousands of people visit the well established Harborfest, Anderson concedes that Jacksonville will have to start small.
“What we’re looking at is to start small and think big,” he said. “There is an incredible amount of logistics involved with bringing in tall ships. We’re going to have to hustle a little bit.”
Sailing ships hail from ports around the world and have no formal sailing schedule, so getting a group of them to converge on Jacksonville for a few days is more than a matter of them making a pit stop in town en route to other cities. Fortunately, Anderson said Jacksonville is developing a reputation as a worthwhile city for ships to visit. Last November, the 187-foot, three-masted Bark Europa sailed into town for the annual Light Parade.
“The Europa had a great time,” said Anderson. “That’s going to give us good word of mouth. The world of tall ships is a pretty small world. They all kind of informally stay in touch with each other.”
Added Self: “Port cities have to build relationships. Once you start building a relationship, it’s easier to get them to come back. The first time, that’s the most challenging, but I think we can do it. We have a great port.”
While enticing the crews to come to Jacksonville can be a challenge, the price of the of keeping them here is another.
Large Class A ships, which run from about Europa’s size all the way up to 600 feet, can command up to $35,000 a day for festivals. The Europa normally goes for about $30,000 a day, though Self said the City got the ship to dock in town for $20,000 for four days. Anderson would like to start small, with a 200-foot Class A ship and several smaller Class B and C ships for the first year. Funding, he hopes, will come from private sponsors. Other sources of compensation could come from in-kind contributions through various businesses who could provide fuel, food, berthing and other considerations.
Besides funding, there are other factors that could limit the growth of RiverFest that are not easily overcome. Currently, downtown docks have room for six Class A ships. Dock space could grow, but it takes time. The real hurdle is the bridges. They are tall enough for the Europa, but the largest ships would not clear.
Eventually, Anderson would like to create a not-for-profit group to organize the RiverFest on an annual basis, similar to the Gator Bowl Association.
“With proper organization and a little luck, we could have a really good show,” he said. “We need something to entice people to come down to the river besides a party at the Landing.”