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Sail Boston sends mixed signals on tall ships festival changes

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / April 4, 2009
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Sail Boston 2009, in an intensifying feud with Mayor Thomas M. Menino over the fate of the beloved tall ships festival this summer, appeared to back off concessions made to the city only a day earlier, sending a letter to supporters saying, "the tall ships are coming, as scheduled."

The letter, from Dusty S. Rhodes, Sail Boston project director, appeared to contradict key elements of a plan presented to city officials on Thursday to dramatically scale back the event: slashing the number of ships coming to Boston for the event and the amount of time they spend in port and, for the first time, charging the public a fee to board them.

"Sail Boston is free of charge, and we are working vigorously to keep it so," Rhodes wrote in the letter. "As we are all affected by the downturn in the economy, the board of Sail Boston feels more strongly than ever that this event must be kept free to the general public."

In a letter to Menino on Thursday, Sail Boston's president and chairman, Patrick B. Moscaritolo, suggested several ways to cut back the event and raise money by charging "a public safety fee, similar to a First Night button, to access the piers where the tall ships are docked."

The volley is the latest in what has become a war of wills between Menino and the tall ships organizers, precipitated by the mayor's declaration that Boston cannot afford security costs in a recession that is forcing city worker layoffs. The fight boiled over Wednesday when Menino declared he would withhold city services from the event and warned that Sail Boston was courting a "public safety crisis" by forging ahead.

Sail Boston initially appeared ready to appease the mayor, with Moscaritolo's letter and conciliatory statements declaring the mayor "absolutely right" to demand security funding. But yesterday Sail Boston pushed back, demanding that the city provide details about security costs before it would offer specific ways to cut back the event.

"Frankly, we need to hear from the city what the public safety plan is, so we can make our modification plan," David Choate, Sail Boston's project manager, said yesterday. "We've asked for the public safety plan and have not received it."

Dot Joyce, Menino's spokeswoman, scoffed at Sail Boston's request.

"We're not going to provide them with our security plans; we don't provide anybody with our security plans," she said. "It's pretty silly that they're trying to micromanage how the city protects and prepares for a large-scale event."

Governor Deval Patrick showed no interest in jumping in to mediate the dispute. "This is not a question of whether or not this event is a positive one for the city and the state," said Kofi Jones, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. "It is an issue of finding available funds at a time when difficult decisions are being made in order to secure the state's long-term economic prosperity."

Waterfront businesses, who have been counting on the event to draw 1 million people in the midst of a recession, said they were hoping that the confusion and fighting can be resolved so the event is not scaled back.

"We're very concerned about it," said Brad Dalbeck, co-owner of two waterfront restaurants, Max and Dylan's on Chelsea Street in Charlestown and Tavern on the Water at the Charlestown Shipyard. He said he had been counting on Sail Boston doubling his sales.

"I know there's a battle going on about who's going to pay what for what, but we're hoping they bring the full boat, as they say," Dalbeck said. "Obviously, the more the better for everybody, any hotel, any restaurant, anything."

Sail Boston officials said the goal of their plan would be to draw fewer than 1 million people, and crowd them onto land owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority, at the World Trade Center and Fish Pier, keeping them off city-owned property. They also suggested paring down the marquee attraction, the Grand Parade of Sail on July 8, when the ships enter the inner harbor under full sail. Such decisions, they said, will depend on the city offering more details about its security.

"It's premature for me to articulate the modifications of the event until we've had an opportunity to meet with the city and understand their public safety requirements," Choate said. "Until then, I can't speculate."

Julie A. Burns - the city's director of arts, tourism, and special events - said it was not clear if Sail Boston's plan would succeed.

"It has six or seven bullet points of ideas, all of which are going to be delved into in greater detail," she said. "They'll 'downsize the parade.' Well, what does that mean? What does it mean when you say you're going to charge admission?"

She said Sail Boston should try to draw as many of its 150-foot ships as possible, but could easily jettison some of those under 75 feet.

The ships are part of an international regatta that starts in Vigo, Spain, and ends in Belfast. "Obviously, it would be very unfortunate to have fewer ships show up and renege on invitations to foreign vessels that have sailed many miles to come here," said Bert Rogers, executive director of the American Sail Training Association, which organizes the regatta.

He said he doesn't believe ships will be turned back.

"We think the fleet can be accommodated in Boston," he said. "The question is how to manage the costs."

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.