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The selling of the War of 1812 bicentennial

While the War of 1812 may be in the DNA of Marylanders, it’s not always in their minds.

Visitors watch ‘The Battle of Fort McHenry’ film Friday at the $15 million visitor center, which opened in 2011.

“Most people, the only thing they really know about the War of 1812, is that it started in 1812,” says Tina Orcutt, superintendent of Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

That’s where the word “Star-Spangled” comes in.

When the hundreds of thousands of expected visitors come to Baltimore this week for the kickoff of the state’s and the nation’s commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, they’ll be here for the “Star-Spangled Sailabration.”

The extravaganza will run from June 13 to 19 and will include more than 40 tall ships and naval vessels from 12 countries, food, music, air shows, festival activities and the world premiere of the Overture of 2012 symphony.

It also does something else.

“It transfers the brand equity from “The Star-Spangled Banner” to this event,” said Mike Tumbarello, an adjunct professor of marketing and strategy at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business. “It passes the ‘brand test.’”

Indeed, 75 percent of Americans know the first verse to the national anthem, said Bill Pencek, the executive director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission.

Created through an executive order by Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2007, the commission and its nonprofit fundraising affiliate, Star-Spangled 200 Inc., are two of the driving forces behind the 32-month commemoration of what many call Maryland’s most important national heritage story and the birth of the United States Navy.

“This is in the DNA of Maryland’s people and organizations all over the state carry this with them every day,” Pencek said. “Defenders Day is Maryland’s oldest holiday. The city seal and the city flag feature the battle monument.”

While the commission had always intended to partner with defense agencies for commemoration activities, working with the Navy happened naturally.

“The Navy approached the governor and the mayor because the Navy wanted to do a series of events in calendar year 2012 because they are extremely proud of their history,” Pencek said. “It’s not hard to make the case that the culture of the modern Navy really came out of the War of 1812.”

The city and state’s tourism agencies have spent about $1 million on advertising for the commemoration, Pencek said.

Advertising started about a year ago and focused on the bicentennial. Around late April, it shifted to Sailabration, said Sam Rogers, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism agency.

“We wanted people to be aware of the bicentennial first,” he said.

The three-year commemoration is expected to cost $25 million. Some $8.5 million could come from surcharges on the sale of commemorative $5 gold coins and silver dollars, at $35 and $10 respectively.

About a quarter of the inventory has been sold, adding $2 million to the fundraising efforts. The coins will available through the end of 2012.

Corporate sponsors have contributed around $5 million and the state has pledged up to $6 million.

About half of all money raised will go to nonprofits and organizations around the state conducting events and programs on the War of 1812.

Roughly $10 million will go toward four signature events: the Sailabration; an 18-month campaign launching in spring 2013 that will include battle re-enactments and a traveling festival around the Chesapeake Bay area; a June 2013 academic conference in Annapolis of War of 1812 historians; and a September 2014 re-enactment of the September 1814 battle at Fort McHenry.

“The really exciting thing for us is this is just the start. Our real bicentennial is 2014,” Fort McHenry’s Orcutt said. That year, the ships will return to the Inner Harbor.

About 100,000 people are expected to visit Fort McHenry during Sailabration, with half of those visitors coming during the two days of air shows featuring the Navy’s Blue Angels on June 16 and 17.

By comparison, 6,000 people came to Fort McHenry during the three-day Memorial Day weekend, Orcutt said.

Visits to Fort McHenry, which opened a $15 million visitor center in 2011, are up 40 percent from last year, when about 675,000 people visited the 18th century star-shaped fort, she said.