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Editorial: We’re sold on turning sails into sales

We have to admit we were skeptical — very skeptical.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 didn’t seem like a slam-dunk tourist attraction to us. In fact, it didn’t seem like much of a slam dunk of anything except the chance for Marylanders to rediscover the proud history behind the defense of Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

While that’s a laudable objective in and of itself, the overall idea didn’t sound like much of a money-maker.

Silly us.

We forgot to mix in tall ships entering Baltimore Harbor under full sail and the Navy’s famous Blue Angels zipping through the skies. Maybe the airplanes weren’t historically accurate, but they sure were crowd-pleasers.

So a tip of the hat to the folks who dreamed up The Star-Spangled Sailabration, a week-long extravaganza that attracted more than 1.5 million people from July 13 to 19, generating $166.1 million in economic activity.

According to a study released last week, $97.7 million of that economic activity was direct impact and another $68.4 million was indirect.

In case you’re keeping score at home, Sailabration’s economic impact was more than three times that of the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix.

The authors of the study, Pittsburgh-based Forward Analytics, should know, because they also analyzed the economic impact of the 2011Grand Prix. Figures for this year’s Grand Prix are not yet available.

Unlike the Grand Prix, which has been criticized for not generating more economic activity outside the confines of its Inner Harbor venue, Sailabration patrons filled city sidewalks, restaurants and other tourist attractions.

“Sailabration enlivened businesses everywhere from the waterfront and Federal Hill to Fell’s Point and Locust Point,” said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and president of Star-Spangled 200 Inc.

The economic activity report said more than 28 percent of attendees were from outside Maryland and 55 percent were from outside Baltimore city and county. Some visitors came from as far as Massachusetts, Florida and California.

In terms of ROI, Sailabration was an even bigger hit. The event cost just $4.8 million, according to the study, which means for every $1 spent on attractions, $35 was generated in direct and indirect impact on the Maryland economy, the study said.

It would seem that the word “free” was also a key contributor to the appeal of Sailabration, especially for families. Besides the aforementioned ships and planes, there were also 75 concerts, 55 food stalls, more than 30 exhibitors and 21 cooking demonstrations — all free.

On top of that, Mother Nature did her share, contributing a week of picture-perfect weather.

So there you have the ingredients for a low-cost, high- ROI, tourist-fueled economic bonanza: tall ships, fast planes, free stuff, ideal weather.

Just think — we still have nearly three years to keep celebrating the War of 1812, not to mention other things our tourist-attracting experts dream up. The mind boggles.