Published September 13. 2013 4:00AM
A fleet of elegant sailboats due to arrive at New London's City Pier this afternoon as part of the Connecticut Schooner Festival is expected to bring what has become a familiar and welcome sight to the downtown area all summer: Crowds of visitors.
Promoters hope up to 20,000 people will attend the event, which originated in Mystic Wednesday and culminates today, Saturday and Sunday in New London - good news for local merchants and officials eager to promote the city as a thriving, attractive destination.
Over the decades New London has struggled to buff up its gritty image and appeal not just to the bar crowd but also to live music fans, restaurant patrons or simply strollers who enjoy walking along Waterfront Park and among handsome, historic buildings.
"The festivals have been great for New London," former New London City Councilor Reid Burdick said Thursday.
Last Saturday's I AM Festival, a 14-hour, free indie music and arts extravaganza, drew throngs to New London, and organizers capitalized on their decision a year ago to move the event from Waterfront Park to the heart of downtown. With bands playing at two main stages on Parade Plaza and the Hygienic Art Park crowds drifted through downtown all night, filling cafes and restaurants, and contributing to a festive, lively atmosphere.
As I AM co-organizer Sean Murray remarked, "This is how it should be."
Shuttle buses also brought in students from Connecticut College, another smart move by organizers.
New London has become the music capital of southeastern Connecticut, reinforced in large part by I AM's growing success.
The city, of course, also is host to the region's largest, most popular festival, Sailfest, and this past July's edition seemed to bring in happier crowds - though there was some grumbling because fog obscured the fireworks.
The Shoreline Acoustic Music Society stages its annual acoustic music festival during the July Sailfest weekend, and organizers reported this summer attracted the biggest, most enthusiastic crowds to the Hygienic Arts Park shows.
Throughout the long season there has been a bounty of other festivals in New London: Fish Tales, Tugs and Sails; Traditions Fest at the Hygienic, Caribbean Night and even a Grinder Fest, homage to the city's claim to be the home of the original sandwich on a roll.
This weekend's Schooner Festival is a fitting tribute to the city's proud maritime heritage, and this newspaper is delighted that it will include not just the usual fried dough and T-shirt vendors that seem to set up booths at every large public gathering, but an actual schooner race, at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Other events today include sand sculpting, a plein air painting competition, a lighted boat parade from Thames Yacht Club to City Pier and back, and live music.
On Saturday, in addition to the schooner race, there will be a walking tour of historic Bank Street with City Historian Sally Ryan, The Great New London Chowder Challenge at city restaurants, and a Flock Theatre presentation of a series of history-themed programs highlighted by a street pageant and the "burning in effigy of Benedict Arnold."
Sunday will feature a schooner parade out of New London Harbor in late morning.
Organizers are calling this weekend's activities the "first annual" schooner festival, which may seem a bit presumptuous considering there are no guarantees the event will return next year.
But given New London's track record this year, and the fact that it is teaming up with Mystic Seaport Museum, gives confidence that there will in fact be a second annual Connecticut Schooner Festival.
We wish organizers a fair wind and following seas, and look forward to what we hope will be a long tradition.