COOS BAY — The inaugural Festival of Sail is drawing criticism from all quarters of the community following a slew of complaints against the event’s organizers.
“A lot of energy, time and money was put into this and we did not see the return that was dangled in front of us when it was first proposed,” Joseph Monahan, chair of the Coos Bay-North Bend Visitor and Convention Bureau (VCB), told Coos Bay’s city council Tuesday night.
Monahan said local hotels saw an 11 percent drop in occupancy during the festival compared to last year’s Tall Ships event.
“If you go back to the weekend of May 19 and (May) 20 — with nothing really going on — it was a 20 percent drop in occupancy,” he added.
According to Monahan, the festival’s promoter, Draw Events, neglected to even advertise in Oregon.
“VCB did advertise with TV, the newspaper and Facebook and we got a lot of positive responses in the beginning as the event was being advertised,” he said, adding that negative comments began to pile up once the festival started.
Ray Doering, director of corporate communications for the Coquille Economic Development Corporation (CEDCO), told councilors The Mill Casino would not donate its properties or facilities to future Festival of Sail events.
He said visitor comments repeatedly indicated that Draw Events failed to meet basic standards of guest service and that the concerns came on top of contractual issues with organizers that persisted up to the day of the first ship’s arrival.
“Although The Mill merely provided a site for the Festival of Sail and did not plan or manage the event, repercussions and visitor dissatisfaction resulting from the event have been directed at the Mill: from confusion over parking to complaints about costs and accessibility, visitors have made their concerns known to our employees and to our social media outlets,” Doering said. “Mill employees did their best to mitigate visitor issues as they arose but they could not take responsibility for managing the event.”
Doering noted the issues from the Festival were strictly with management, not the ships or its crews, who he said were welcome to return to The Mill whenever they visit the area.
He said the casino would continue to support community organizations and activities but that CEDCO had an obligation to protect the reputation of its businesses — in this case, The Mill Casino, Hotel and RV Park.
“It is this obligation that requires us to withdraw our facilities from this particular event in the coming years,” Doering added.
Councilor Lucinda DiNovo, director of sales and marketing for The Mill, said she was disappointed in the festival’s attendance, especially after Coos Bay gave $20,000 to help fund an event that was supposed to draw tens of thousands of people.
In February 2016, then city councilor and festival promoter, Tom Leahy, said Draw Events president Craig Samborski anticipated drawing more than 15,000 spectators to the area for the 4-day event and that there was optimism that the number was an underestimation.
"Craig likes to underpromise and overdeliver," Leahy said at the time.
When Leahy sat down with The World last month to help promote the event, he said organizers expected drawing somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people.
While attendance numbers for the event have yet to be released, the dour mood among councilors and city officials Tuesday night suggested they were far lower than anticipated.
“It’s disappointing,” DiNovo said. “We also originally understood that there would be 12 ships and it ended up actually only being four, so I think there’s disappointment for the community.”
Councilor Stephanie Kramer said officials from the Coos Bay Boat Building Center had expressed exasperation over Draw Events’ handling of the festival.
Kramer also complained that the Festival of Sail website went the entire duration of the weekend without being updated once. “How easy would it have been to just update the website?”
Mayor Joe Benetti noted that local businesses' expectations for the weekend ended up contrasting greatly with what actually transpired.
“Originally, there were supposed to be 12 ships, then it was five and people were also upset there was only one ship down at the dock (downtown),” he said.
City Manager Rodger Craddock said the one ship that ended up dropping anchor by downtown Coos Bay only did so because it did not have the necessary documents to park by The Mill.
As for the disparity in ship numbers, Leahy said in his interview with The World last month the dozen ships originally promised were cut in half due to financial constraints. He also noted, along with the Festival’s website, that even those five ships locked in for the festival were not guaranteed.
It’s a fact that even The Oregonian failed to recognize when it published a piece on the event and stated that “at least five historic tall ships” would be on site.
Kramer said she thought it would be better if next year’s event was held downtown.
“Tom (Leahy) has put over a 1,000 kids on those boats throughout the years, so it’s a wonderful adventure for the community — and indeed we are a tall ship place — but it’s sad, I’ve been to a Festival of Sail in San Diego and they are fun when done right.”
When questioned by The World, local businesses’ reactions to the weekend were mixed at best.
An employee for Vintage 101 in downtown Coos Bay off Highway 101 said foot traffic was notably down from last year’s Tall Ships event.
North Bend-based Tin Thistle Cafe owner Paula Holmes said business was “practically dead” on Friday but picked up on Saturday.
7 Devils Brewery on the other hand, had a close to record setting Friday night in sales, according to several employees familiar with the matter.
That same night, the monthly wine walk also had one of its busiest nights of the year but visitor center representatives were hesitant to attribute the crowds to the festival, saying nice weather could have just as easily been a driving factor.
“I know the city put money into it and expectations were great and the follow through unfortunately from the promoter was different than what was (promised),” Benetti said Tuesday. “I hope there’s some way to work with Tall Ships (in the future).”