Naval celebration could bring big bucks to Detroit

By Zlati Meyer

Detroit Free Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Almost 200 years after Detroit surrendered to the British without a fight, the city's riverfront will be the scene of a huge, weeklong gala in September, with a replica tall ship and several Navy war ships, concerts and fun events involving the city's pro sports teams.

The War of 1812 Bicentennial and Navy Week, Sept. 5-10, is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of spectators -- and millions of tourism dollars -- to about 50 events from downtown Detroit to Lake St. Clair.

Concerts are planned near the Renaissance Center, with precision rifle drills and a Red Wings alumni-versus-Navy-personnel softball game at Lake St. Clair Metropark. Most of the events are free, and officials are still working out the details of a few.

The celebration comes almost 200 years to the day that Gen. William Hull surrendered Detroit without a fight to the British. He was later court-martialed and condemned to death, though the sentence was ultimately reduced.

"Detroit doesn't normally get to see a lot of the Navy. We're bringing the Navy to Detroit, so you can see sailors and Marines, up close and personal," Adm. Gregory Nosal, in charge of the Navy's War of 1812 celebration, said in an exclusive interview with the Free Press. "It's our history. It's our heritage. A lot of people from the middle part of the United States, they may not have been exposed to the Navy."

Ship enthusiasts, history buffs and even landlubbers can tour the USS De Wert, the USS Hurricane, the Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay and the historic US Brig Niagara -- a War of 1812 replica tall ship first constructed using the original wreckage salvaged from a Lake Erie bay in 1913. It has been rebuilt several times and last came to Detroit for the city's 2001 tri-centennial celebration.

The Niagara was the relief flagship for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, whose nine-ship American fleet defeated the British navy in the Battle of Lake Erie, retaking control of important supply routes. He famously reported after the victory, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

The Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy could not provide crowd estimates or economic forecasts, though the conservancy said each day-visitor to Detroit brings an average of $76 worth of spending.

But other major urban centers on the tour that have hosted the commemoration saw big bucks and big crowds.

From July 1-8 in Boston, more than 2 million people came and spent $30 million-$50 million, and about half of the money came from people attending the commemoration, according to Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesman George Regan.

"For hotels, restaurants and bars, this was found money," he said.

Baltimore anticipated 500,000 visitors to spend $50 million from June 13-19, though post-event numbers won't be available until the fall, according to Maryland officials.

For Detroit, it's an opportunity to draw people to a riverfront that has been upgraded and revamped with special development projects over the last several years.

As part of the commemoration, about 700 personnel from the U.S. Navy, Marines and Coast Guard and the Canadian military will be coming to town, according to U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Ron Flesvig.

"We're really excited to have it," said Mac McCracken, the conservancy's director of security and operations. "What it will do is bring the sailors from those vessels here to Detroit. ... They have things planned to showcase Detroit to them."

The biggest draw for civilians, though, likely will be the Niagara, now privately owned and docked in Erie, Pa., when it's not touring. The 198-foot ship was rebuilt in 1913, 1933 and 1988. Anyone can board for a tour.

"The waterfront we have is a great backdrop to highlight it," said Sommer Woods, the special-event liaison for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing's office. "To be able to be a part of this historical moment, to have these particular ships on our waterfront ... people should come out and enjoy it, because who knows when we'll be able to see them again."

Jim McConnell, who is secretary of the Michigan War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, is among those planning to head to Detroit to see the ships.

"The Navy played a big role in the War of 1812. To have these battleships today will be very interesting experience," said the 73-year-old from Livonia. "I'm going to really think about the Niagara, which was Oliver Hazard Perry's flagship. It's amazing that pieces of the ships are still on the ship today."

McConnell appreciated that Queen Elizabeth II's jubilee and the London Olympics coincide with the 200th commemoration of the start of the War of 1812.

"It's a wonderful quirk of the calendar to have such a focus on England today, when 200 years ago, we were enemies," he said. "One of key results of the War of 1812 is the peace that has existed between the U.S. and Great Britain to this day. Both sides thought they would fight again."

Published: Wed, Aug 29, 2012