Absence of fleet during “Fleet Week” a loss for sailors and the community

04/10/2013 5:05 PM

04/10/2013 5:06 PM

Picture the scene of a Fort Lauderdale beachside hotel and in strut a couple of Navy sailors — in uniform — straight off the ship. They spot a table full of young women in swimsuits sipping cocktails and listening to music. One sailor dares the other: bet you can’t get them to dance with you.

“I went over to the table and I said ‘Ladies, I can’t ask just one of you to dance with me,’” (Ret.) Senior Chief Petty Officer Chuck Black, recalled of his visit to Fort Lauderdale in the 1980s. ‘“I’m going to ask all of you to dance with me.’

“And they did. It was so much fun.”

The welcoming atmosphere Black found in Fort Lauderdale lured him back, and today Black is a permanent resident of South Florida and loyal supporter of Fleet Week, that beloved annual tradition that brings thousands of sailors to our shores each year.

This year it starts April 29 — but without its heart and centerpiece: the U.S. Navy. Yep, you read that right — we are going to have a fleet less Fleet Week.

Due to the federal budget cuts known as sequestration, the U.S. Navy won’t be sending ships.

The week isn’t cancelled — there will still be some events to honor military veterans: golf and fishing tournaments, a Miami Marlins game and other events.

In recent years there was a big opening party at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, but that won’t happen this year — the opening event was listed as “TBA” on the website at www.BrowardNavyDaysInc.org.

Mary Anne Gray, director of Broward Navy Days, said she got a telephone call from an information officer at the Pentagon Monday afternoon telling her that Broward wouldn’t get a ship visit. Broward had been expecting two destroyers, a Coast Guard cutter and a submarine, she said.

But organizers didn’t want to scrap the week all together because some events had already been planned, such as a Legion of Honor ceremony for World War II veterans.

A more than 20-year tradition, Fleet Week is an event that combines parties, public relations for the military, community service and entertainment for locals and tourists. Sailors would flock to restaurants near the port or the beach.

“You look forward to it every year,” said Joey Esposito who would volunteer as a celebrity chef on the ship and invite some sailors to his Cafe Seville restaurant. “It was a way of Broward County saying thank you for your service. Everybody in this whole town would open up their arms to them. It’s like your kid coming home from college — you are not going to see them this year.”

Sailors would pitch in to help with Habitat for Humanity projects and visit places such as local hospitals and veterans homes. Students who are members of ROTC or were expecting to go to military academies would also participate.

And while for the sailors it was a chance to have fun and take a break, the public got to tour some ships.

“It’s a big PR thing — the armed forces show off their latest equipment for the public,” said former Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom who lives in Fort Lauderdale. “For many people, the only exposure they have their whole life to tour ships is when they come in.”

Last year, Fleet Week generated about $4 million from the sailors and their families, said Nicki Grossman, head of Fort Lauderdale’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Many of the sailors stay with family or friends who live nearby so much of that money is from restaurants and entertainment, Grossman said.

That’s not a huge economic hit overall during Broward’s busy tourist season, but it’s a loss for the sailors and the local community that embraced them.

“Fort Lauderdale is one of, if not the best, liberty ports in the entire country,” said former Congressman E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, who took his grandchildren to Fleet Week for many years. “We cherish that reputation. ... Fort Lauderdale loves the Navy.”

Another popular military event here has also taken a hit. The Fort Lauderdale Air Show, set for April 20-21, will still go on with a civilian lineup, but the U.S. Air Force won’t be sending the Thunderbirds, always a popular draw.

“Last year you looked around and everything that moved was in a white uniform,” said Grossman. “It is a terrific picture we are not going to be able to take this year. Here is the human face of sequestration.”

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