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Jamestown's Big Gamble

Central Virginia is expecting a rush of tourists for Jamestown 2007. But who says they'll show?



There's only one problem: Tourist projections are based on little more than guesswork.

The 18-month series of events and programs, which began in May, aims to honor and highlight Jamestown as the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Organizers and corporations are counting on the commemoration — essentially a long 400th-birthday party for the nation — to boost tourism revenue throughout much of Virginia.

The promise of tourism dollars and the economic windfall they will produce have spurred public, private and nonprofit entities to reach into their pockets for upwards of $100 million. By most accounts, the celebration is off to a promising start.

But there are no guarantees that the lofty attendance projections for all things Jamestown will come to fruition. Similar American celebrations that hinged on history have recently raised doubts about the modern public's interest in the past. In one case, optimistic spending and unrealistic attendance projections left a small Montana city in debt.

"We've never had an economic impact figure because we have no idea how many people will show up," says Martha Steger, director of public relations for the Virginia Tourism Corporation. "When you're doing something that only occurs every 50 years, it's impossible to predict."

Organizers of Jamestown 2007 and related events in the Richmond region say their tourist projections are grounded in reality. They expect 2.4 million people to take part in the festivities, which include large "signature" events, smaller programs and community projects through 2007.

"Obviously, one of the larger goals is to drive tourism to Virginia and raise awareness of all parts of Virginia," says Jeanne Zeidler, mayor of Williamsburg and executive director of Jamestown 2007, the group spearheading the commemoration. "I hope and believe we'll see good results."

The Jamestown festivities kicked off in late May with an 80-day sail along the Eastern Seaboard by a replica of the Godspeed, which brought English settlers to Virginia in 1607. Initial crowd estimates were topped when a total of 456,000 people greeted the vessel at various ports, including more than 100,000 people in Old Town Alexandria.

In addition, Zeidler's group and others say that marketing efforts, along with the Godspeed tour, already may be fueling an uptick in Web hits and calls from out-of-state travelers eyeing Jamestown.

Debby Padgett, media-relations manager for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in Williamsburg, the state agency that runs the Jamestown Settlement, says paid visitation to the fort totaled 253,431 through the first half of 2006 — up 12 percent from 226,417 between January and June 2005.

Nearby at Historic Jamestowne, the original site operated by APVA Preservation Virginia in partnership with the National Park Service, visitation in July was up 19 percent from the previous year.

"If phone calls are any indication, we're starting to get a lot more calls about how to plan a vacation to Jamestown," says Elizabeth Kostelny, executive director of APVA, a nonprofit based in Richmond.

It's difficult to tell whether these trends will continue and whether organizers' hopes for Jamestown 2007 will pan out. Attendance projections are, at best, educated guesses. Some are based on past events, while others stem from the number of people a particular building or stadium can hold.

Consider that Jamestown 2007 organizers predict 1 million people will check out the Jamestown portion of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival next summer on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. That figure has little to do with America's 400th anniversary.

"We pretty much know, generally speaking, there's a million people on the mall" for the Folklife Festival, Zeidler says.

About 30,000 people a day are expected to turn out for three days of music, theater and fireworks during "America's Anniversary Weekend" May 2007 in the historic Jamestown area. But that projection is based not on surveys or advance ticket sales, but rather on the capacity of the venues and the roads connecting them.

"I believe we could get more people there, that more people would want to come," Zeidler says. "But we can't transport them down to the event."

Attendance projections were equally high a few years ago as communities from Virginia to Oregon readied for the National Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commemoration. But visitation fell far short of the mark in Washington state and the town of St. Charles, Mo. Even worse, poor ticket sales landed the city of Great Falls, Mont., half a million dollars in debt.

George Horse Capture helped organize a Native American event in Great Falls for the Lewis and Clark celebration before he headed to Washington, D.C., as a consultant to the National Museum of the American Indian. He blames the letdown in Great Falls on a combination of unrealistic expectations and audience burnout.

"Because we have a Lewis and Clark [National] Forest, a Lewis and Clark this, and a Lewis and Clark that, we're very close to the subject," Horse Capture says. "I think by association we magnified the importance of the whole thing."

That magnification, coupled with the desire for economic development, he believes, led to politicians and PR agencies offering inflated attendance projections. "When expectations are too high, people end up disappointed," he says.

Officials in Jamestown and Richmond say they won't repeat those mistakes. Richmond Region 2007, for example, is planning a series of commemorative events without spending beyond its means. The group is behind the local edition of the National Folk Festival, a made-for-TV special called "African-American Trailblazers" and another Godspeed re-enactment set for next May. With a fund-raising goal of $5 million — reduced from $6.2 million — Richmond Region 2007 already has $4.2 million in donation commitments from corporate sponsors such as The Jefferson Hotel, Ukrop's, First Market Bank and Philip Morris USA.

"The way you prevent a problem is you don't spend money you don't have," says Wilson Flohr, president and chief executive of Richmond Region 2007. "We're not going to go out on a limb. Our corporations have invested in this because of the economic benefit it can have, the branding opportunity and a sense of commitment to the Richmond area."

Corporations aren't the only ones risking their investment. The state has pumped millions into the commemoration. Jamestown 2007 received about $18.4 million in revenue between fiscal 1998 and fiscal 2006, according to the group's financial records. That total included $15.3 million in Virginia 400th Anniversary Funds, $2.3 million from the state's general fund, more than $535,000 from license-plate fees and nearly $149,000 in miscellaneous revenue. Jamestown 2007 has, in turn, funded its own operating costs and set up partnership initiatives, with advertising and the cost of putting on signature events still to come.

Zeidler expects the diversity of the Jamestown 2007 celebration to ensure its success.

"I know people are always concerned about big events that are once-in-a-lifetime," she says. "They can either be huge opportunities or not. This one, I think, is off to a great start."

Others intend to avoid a Lewis and Clark-like mishap by looking beyond the 18-month Jamestown 2007 festivities. APVA Preservation Virginia has raised $32 million toward its $45 million goal. But Kostelny says the improvements being paid for with that money, including shoreline upgrades and a new visitors' center, should help Historic Jamestowne boost its offerings and visitation long after the 18-month spotlight fades.

"I certainly hope Jamestown 2007 won't end up with a black eye," she says. "The Godspeed sail showed great interest, and was a bigger success than was anticipated. So hopefully the doomsday forecast won't come true." S

By the Numbers

People expected to take part in Jamestown 2007 events: 2.4 million

Population of Utah, according to the U.S. Census Bureau: 2.5 million

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