Crowds for Whitbread boat race sparse Rain, fear of traffic kept people away, Annapolis officials say


Annapolis officials blamed downpours and the threat of gridlock for the underwhelming crowds that showed up for the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race, an event they had hyped as the biggest ever in the historic sailing town.

The city spent more than a year bracing for an onslaught of 200,000 people, but fewer than half that number showed up. They ended up with surplus parking, too many police officers and streets emptier than expected.

City police estimated yesterday that perhaps 40,000 to 60,000 people joined the four-day Whitbread festival, which ended Sunday when the nine race yachts sailed out of the harbor. Deemed by Annapolis officials a classy and successful affair that filled hotels and brought new faces to the city, Whitbread didn't register with many business owners outside the City Dock area, where most of the activities were held.

"Let's just say when I came in at 3 p.m. on Saturday, I found five parking spaces easily," said Frank McLaughlin, a night supervisor at Main Street Ice Cream. "It wasn't a good weekend. We didn't do as much business as we did in previous weekends."

Fit to a T, a retail store on Main Street, also reported average sales, especially on Sunday, when most tourists disappeared shortly after the Whitbread 60s left town about 10: 30 a.m. The Bay Bridge Walk and a water festival at Sandy Point Park the same day also drew visitors away, said shop salesman Victor Sarmast.

Weather was deterrent

"Whitbread was good, and it was great to see, but the weather did not cooperate for us, and there were not that many people in town," Sarmast said.

On Maryland Avenue and Main and West streets -- usually the busiest business locations for tourists -- reports were similar.

Little Campus Inn, a popular tavern on Maryland Avenue, reported no difference in the number of customers. Ram's Head Tavern, a hip brewery on West Street, said it had less business than usual.

Baltimore's boon

The estimate for Annapolis resulted from the experience of other ports around the world that reported enormous numbers of visitors to their cities for the race.

Annapolis' figures were a stark contrast to the economic boon that Baltimore officials reported the weekend before, when the Whitbread landed at the Inner Harbor. Baltimore police estimated crowds of 300,000 April 25 and 200,000 the next day.

"We didn't even come close," said Sgt. Philip Turner of the Annapolis police, who coordinates traffic for special events. "We had more than enough police there to handle what was expected. In fact, we had an overkill.

Parking available

"The potential was very much there for this large crunch of people, but God, in his infinite wisdom, overrode the plans of mankind, and a lot of people stayed home because of the weather."

On the plus side, parking downtown was easy. Getting a table for lunch was even easier. Police had no problem dealing with parking violators. Crime related to the events was minimal. And anyone selling umbrellas and rain slickers must have made a killing.

City officials said the crowds were steady but not unmanageable. Thursday and Sunday, the days Whitbread came to town and departed, people jammed the Naval Academy sea wall and docks.

Optimistic estimate

"I never ever dreamt that it would be 200,000," said Susan K. Zellers, the Annapolis economic development director. "Those numbers were always inflated. I think the real key to this Whitbread event are the unmeasurable pieces of economic development.

"We sold out hotel rooms during a weekend of the year we normally don't. There were the different types of tourists introduced to our city and the idea that in the future when people make a decision on where to get their boat worked on, they're going to remember Annapolis hosted an international sailing event."

Robert Youngblood, executive director of the Greater Annapolis Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

"It was a respectable crowd," Youngblood said. "In the visitor industry, you can thrive or it can be risky. You never know sometimes with large events, especially because of the weather."

As David Miller, manager of the Ram's Head Tavern, joked, "We threw a party and nobody came."

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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