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Fleet Week seen as success, boost to tourism in Baltimore

"At the Inner Harbor, I have never seen it so busy," says Fleet Week organizer.

When the Blue Angels soared over Baltimore's Inner Harbor last weekend, the crowd that had gathered in Isabella's Brick Oven in Little Italy dashed out to watch.

Even after the Navy's elite flight demonstration team flew into the distance, crowds packed the South High Street restaurant to such an extent that it ran short on bread and dough by Sunday evening.

"This was really terrific, better than we expected," Isabella's owner, Daniel Stewart, said of business over the weekend, the final two days of the first Maryland Fleet Week & Air Show. "As soon as we heard jets, everyone was out of the place. As soon as it was quiet, they flooded back in."

Officials were still tallying final visitor counts Monday but said the weeklong event drew tourists from the region and beyond. Organizers had been anticipating about 500,000 people at the city's waterfront and elsewhere to tour ships, watch air shows and wander through festivals.

The city heard relatively few complaints about traffic on a weekend when some downtown streets were closed Saturday for the Baltimore Running Festival, said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. He said many visitors heeded advice to take public transportation.

"Everything really came together," McCarthy said. "It was something for everyone."

Officials reported strong numbers for ship tours, including 5,000 people for the Canadian navy's coastal defense vessel Shawinigan at the Inner Harbor and more than 9,000 visitors for the U.S. Navy transport ship Carson City at Pier 5. A total of about 30,000 people visited all the Navy ships that offered tours.

Fort McHenry nearly reached its capacity of 11,000 visitors Sunday, said Christopher Rowsom, executive director of Historic Ships in Baltimore, a Fleet Week organizer with the state Department of Commerce and the Maryland Office of Tourism.

"At the Inner Harbor, I have never seen it so busy, and I've been around a long time," Rowsom said. "Particularly Saturday afternoon, it was jampacked. It was more than we were expecting.

"People come specifically for this, and that's bringing people into the city, putting people in hotels, and visiting restaurants and other attractions besides the ships," he said.

Visitors came to see more than 40 sailboats and schooners in Canton early in the week. The Great Chesapeake Bay Schooners' Parade of Sail took place Wednesday at the Inner Harbor, followed Thursday by the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooners Race. U.S. and Canadian navy ships arrived Wednesday at the Inner Harbor, Locust Point and Fells Point.

On Saturday, people lined up more than an hour before gates opened at Martin State Airport, said Al Pollard, the airport's chief of operations. He said more than 15,000 people came to view more than 30 fighter jets and other aircraft that were on display along with vintage aircraft from the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum. Visitors met pilots and flight crews and watched the Blue Angels and other military aircraft depart for shows.

Such events help expose the public to aviation, Pollard said.

"We do it for the public good will and for the future aviators of the world, future pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers," Pollard said.

On Monday, organizers were looking ahead to making Fleet Week a biannual happening.

"The city needs that kind of thing," Rowsom said. "We need people to know they can come down to the city and feel comfortable here, and it's events like this that definitely help with that."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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