2017-08-24 / Around Town

Newport Looks to Attract National Hall of Fame

By Bob Rulli

The City Council will address the possibility of the Sailing Hall of Fame relocation in October. (Photo by James Merolla The City Council will address the possibility of the Sailing Hall of Fame relocation in October. (Photo by James Merolla Last week, Newport Mayor Harry Winthrop said that discussions were underway with the National Sailing Hall of Fame to relocate to the City by the Sea. According to Winthrop, he heard that plans to construct a new Hall of Fame in Annapolis, Maryland, where the group is based, were on hold due to difficulty raising funds for the building. With that news, Winthrop said he sent a letter suggesting that Newport would welcome the Hall of Fame, and he offered the Armory Antiques Marketplace on Thames Street as a location.

Meanwhile, the 150-plus vendors presently at the armory, first heard about the Hall of Fame idea by reading it in the newspaper or through word of mouth. It is not the first time the vendors have been caught by surprise. Previously, there were questions about continuing the Master Lease for the historic building and the fear of being forced to vacate became real.

Later, the city built the Transient Maritime Center in the lower level of the armory, which resulted in a six-month shutdown of the facility.

Cindy Lee, who manages the armory and is one of the owners of Armory Antiques Marketplace, Inc., questioned whether the Hall of Fame would be a steady attraction. "We are a year-round business. For our vendors, it is not seasonal, there is activity all year," she said. She suggested that the city should consider the Naval Hospital property for the Hall of Fame.

Many of the armory’s vendors rely on their business as their sole source of income. When asked what the city might do to assist them should they be forced to leave, Winthrop said, "I am not sure that is the city's responsibility. We would certainly offer letters of recommendation or positive references, but I don't see us having the responsibility of finding them new space."

Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport, suggested the Gateway Center, where his offices are located and is also city property, as an alternative location. "We have over 600,000 people come through this building every year,” he said.

The current lease between the city and Armory Antique Marketplace expires in December. The marketplace pays the city $56,632 in yearly rent, and splits expenses evenly with the city. Lee said that the city is responsive when there are issues or repairs needed, but she commented that "the roof, which is slate, has been a continual problem when it rains."

Winthrop said one of the possible conditions in a lease with the Hall of Fame would be "for them to repair the roof and cover the cost of other upgrades to the space if we reach an agreement with them."

Smith expressed his support for the Hall of Fame in Newport. "What better city for a Sailing Hall of Fame? We are a perfect fit," he said. "I give a lot of credit to Mayor Winthrop and City Manager [Joseph] Nicholson for quietly taking the lead on this and getting the conversation as far as they have. That is exactly the type of initiative that city leaders should be taking."

Smith added that he hopes "this is not some strategic play by the Hall of Fame to leverage Annapolis to do more to keep the Hall of Fame there."

"I don't want to be skeptical, because I am 150 percent in favor of them coming here, but you see it with the Pawsox, you saw it when [New England Patriots’ owner] Robert Kraft teased the state of Connecticut years ago. It is a strategy teams and entities use. I just hope that is not the case here."

After word got out about the potential move to Newport, Gary Jobson, president of The National Sailing Hall of Fame, released a statement in the Annapolis-based Capital Gazette, labeling reports of a relocation to Newport "erroneous."

The statement went on to say, "For the record: The National Sailing Hall of Fame is located in Annapolis, Maryland, and we are diligently proceeding through the development process for a new facility in Annapolis."

Winthrop has scheduled the Hall of Fame as an agenda item for an October City Council meeting. "They are going to give us their business plan, we will review it and if it makes sense, we will pursue negotiating an agreement," he said.

In his statement, Jobson acknowledged that Newport has contacted them and that the Hall’s Board of Trustee's has an obligation to listen. "But no offer has been presented for consideration," he said.

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