Baltimore's weeklong Star-Spangled Sailabration in June drew more than 1.5 million people — some 435,000 from out of state — and had an estimated $166 million in economic impact on the metro area, according to a study released Thursday by the event organizers.
The estimate includes about $98 million in spending by visitors, vendors and sponsors from outside the region, with the rest coming from the indirect effect of that "fresh" money cycling through the local economy.
"This was spectacular in size," said Candace Campbell, senior project director at Forward Analytics, which prepared the report for the nonprofit Star-Spangled 200 Inc. "One of our survey questions was, 'Is Sailabration the main reason you're in the area?' and 90 percent said 'yes.' "
The Pittsburgh-based market research group also prepared the official economic-impact study for last year's Baltimore Grand Prix and has been asked to analyze this year's race as well. Forward Analytics estimated that the 2011 street-racing event, held over Labor Day weekend, generated about $47 million in direct and indirect economic impact — substantially less per day than Sailabration and far short of organizers' projections.
Sailabration kicked off two years of events marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Visitors told Forward Analytics that the event's tall ships and Blue Angels air show were the biggest draws, though people also came for other Sailabration activities, such as concerts and an aircraft festival at Martin State Airport in eastern Baltimore County.
The event cost $4.8 million. Half of that was covered by state funds and the rest by corporate sponsorships.
"From a purely economic standpoint, public investment in Sailabration was justified many times over," Forward Analytics said in its report, calculating the economic impact at about $35 for every $1 spent by organizers.
Dennis Coates, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a critic of economic-impact studies, said this one was "reasonably well done" as such reports go. But he thinks a case can be made that the report substantially overstates Sailabration's effect.
Forward Analytics looked at the Baltimore-area impact, treating visitors from elsewhere in the state as out-of-towners bringing fresh infusions of money. But the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, which planned Sailabration with Star-Spangled 200, is a state entity. By one way of thinking, Coates said, anything Marylanders spent while taking in Sailabration was simply money they would otherwise have spent elsewhere in the state.
Counting only the out-of-state visitors' spending as new money brings the total impact down to about $59 million, he said.
On the other hand, Coates said, it's easier to justify government spending on a War of 1812 event than on Baltimore's Grand Prix, which returned last month for a second year.
"I don't have a hard time saying something like Sailabration is a fundamental purpose of government because it's essentially honoring, celebrating, our historical heritage … and people have a good time in the process," he said. "I don't see why there's a fundamental government purpose in throwing a car race through the streets of a major city."
Sailabration got glowing reviews from businesses. Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a business improvement district, said some companies told her they had their best weekend ever during the event.
"Almost every … tourism-related business sector in the city saw record numbers," she said.
The Maryland Science Center, which discounted its usual $16.95 entrance fee to $10 for three days during Sailabration, saw a 23 percent increase in weekend attendance compared with the same weekend a year earlier. The center, the only organization selling the official commemorative poster during the event, also shared in those proceeds.
"The city was full, and it was a chance to showcase everything we had," said Chris Cropper, senior director of marketing at the Maryland Science Center. "I think the opportunity to bring people into the city and spend time here has benefits beyond the economics."
A Forward Analytics survey of Sailabration visitors found that just over a quarter of those from outside the city had never been to Baltimore's downtown and Inner Harbor area before.
Families in town for Sailabration streamed into the Kona Grill on Pratt Street all week, leading to "higher volume than we've seen in many, many, many years," said manager Claudio Aspillaga. He's just sorry it's a strictly bicentennial sort of event.
"It only happens every 200 years, but if it happened every year, then that would be awesome," he said.
Organizers do expect to put on another Sailabration-like festival with ships and the Blue Angels in 2014, the final year of bicentennial events.
Donald C. Fry, president of Star-Spangled 200, said the only other event of similar size his group could find in Maryland's history was Operation Sail 2000, a maritime festival that drew about 1.5 million people to Baltimore a dozen years ago.
"To attract over 1.5 million people for [Sailabration] was just extraordinary," said Fry, who also heads the Greater Baltimore Committee. "It's certainly one of the largest and most successful events that Maryland has seen."