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Fleet Weeks a casualty of federal sequester

By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The ships won't be coming in this year.

Six cities, from New York to San Diego, are bracing for cuts or outright cancellations of their annual Fleet Weeks, spring and summer events when the Navy opens its ships to tours for the general public and crowds of sailors pour into local bars and restaurants.

The events are a casualty of the sequester -- $85 billion in cuts to the federal budget that began to kick in on March 1, threatening temporary layoffs for hundreds of thousands of workers and causing the Defense Department to pull the funds that would have allowed aircraft carriers, submarines and other vessels to participate in the events.

"No branch of armed forces can participate in community relations or outreach events that come at an additional cost to the government or rely on anything other than local assets or personnel," said Beth Baker, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's mid-Atlantic region. "This is not a decision that was made lightly, and this is one of many steps the Navy is taking to make sure we use resources to support our armed forces."

New York Fleet week, which takes place in mid-May, will not be receiving the thousands of sailors it typically welcomes, but the city says it is working with the Navy to provide locally funded alternatives.

"Fleet Week has been a great event for the city, and we will continue working closely with the Navy to explore how we can continue to celebrate the commitment of our servicemen and women," Evelyn Erskine, a spokeswoman from the mayor's office, said.

The cuts will be a blow to the local economy. While the Navy estimates it will save $7 million to $10 million by not participating in the event, the New York City Economic Development Corporation estimates local businesses will lose about $20 million in revenue as restaurants, bars and nightclubs miss out on business from both visiting sailors and landlubbers.

"It's sad for (the sailors) that they're not coming in to enjoy themselves," said Sinead Dull, manager of the Half King, a bar on Manhattan's West Side a few blocks from where the ships dock on the Hudson River.

Dull, who had not heard about the cuts, said her bar saw more business than usual when the sailors were around, but the cuts wouldn't be enough to hurt business in the long run. "It's usually just a lot of fun," she said.

Other Fleet Week events are held in Portland, Oregon; San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

NO PRIVATE PANACEA

Other fleet weeks are run and funded by non-profit organizations, but they too are feeling the pinch as much of their funding comes from defense contractors, which have also been hit by the sequester.

That includes San Diego Fleet Week, which relies predominantly on corporate funding from defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp.

"We're absolutely having a Fleet Week, but we'll be scaled back because our corporate sponsorship's budget is tight," said Alexandra Squires, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego Fleet Week. Organizers may have to cancel a golf tournament affiliated with the event, she said.

Ships do not typically travel to San Diego, which has a large military population, for its fleet week, so the city's economy will not miss out on visiting sailors, Squires said.

"Last year there was a Canadian visit ship and on a normal year there may be a ship that was stopping in the port, but we don't draw them in," Squires said. "We're thanking the guys in our backyard."

Fleet Week organizers in Fort Lauderdale, a city that relies both on Navy funds and private sponsors to run the show, were expecting a submarine, two destroyers, and a Coast Guard cutter to make an appearance this year before the Navy made a phone call saying the plans were off.

"We'll miss the sailors and the businesses will miss them, too. But what's in the best interest of the Navy is what's in our best interest" said J.W. Arnold, a spokesperson for Broward Navy Days, the nonprofit organization that runs the event.

"We're disappointed, but we have every expectation that they'll be back next year."

(Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

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