WILDWOOD — Blending patriotism and tourism, promoters of the Celebration of Heroes say they’ve created an event that will honor the men and women who serve our country in the military or as first responders.
Organizers have set high expectations for this event, announcing it at a winter press conference in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center across from Independence Hall.
Their goals remain lofty: Organizers are expecting the three-day event to draw 300,000 people to the island on Memorial Day Weekend.
Soldiers, marines and coast guardsmen will fill island hotels and streets; they’ll also fill computer screens as they talk to loved ones from a war zone in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas.
The U.S. Coast Guard is breaking with tradition to hold one of its graduations — usually held on the Cape May base and reserved for invited guests — in the Wildwoods Convention Center, where members of the public can get a glimpse of the storied ceremony.
Many South Jersey shore towns are steeped in military history, but Wildwood is the most gung-ho these days in promoting it: the city is home to both a Korean and Vietnam war memorial, and the two largest veterans organizations in New Jersey hold their annual conferences here.
The flurry of support may seem surprising given that the Celebration of Heroes is in its infancy, but John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority, said the level of interest is fitting.
“Every day, we get up and we go to work and do the things we do because there are men and women risking their lives for us. That is the primary reason we should do this. This is ‘thank you.’” Siciliano said.
National advertisers buy in
While the event is a new addition to the Wildwood calendar, Ford Motor Company and Comcast are sponsoring the event, along with a long list of media companies and others from the Philadelphia area and the Garden State. The value of their advertising support is worth $500,000, Siciliano said.
Ford is hosting a day of games on the beach, an event that members of the Coast Guard will help run. Comcast is sponsoring a military call center designed to give family and friends a place to chat with active duty troops and officers based in Afghanistan with the help of the Liberty USO.
In addition to the Ford Family Fun Games on the beach, the company is bringing in the Ford Experience, a collection of interactive components housed in a series of trailers coming in from Dearborn, Mich., which will be housed adjacent to the convention center.
Ford, the world’s No. 2 automaker in terms of global sales, is also bringing in a 2013 Ford Escape and the new Focus electric model.
Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said involvement with the military community is part of the company’s culture, noting that founder Ralph Roberts is a Navy veteran.
The ties that bind
Siciliano points to the island’s ties to military and first responder organizations as the genesis of the event.
The convention center, for instance, has hosted the New Jersey State Firemen’s Convention as well as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars conventions for decades, and it was the construction of a half-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that inspired the Celebration of Heroes.
“Two years ago when the wall was unveiled, we thought maybe this is the foundation that we needed to build the weekend around,” Siciliano said of the desire to draw visitors to Five Mile Beach at what is often called the unofficial start of summer.
The wall, a replica of the Washington, D.C., memorial and a product of private donations, was formally dedicated May 29, 2010.
“It’s a perfect fit,” said Vince DePrinzio, a Vietnam veteran and Middle Township resident who served in the Marines from 1964 to 1967.
DePrinzio, treasurer of the Wildwood-based Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 955, led the movement to bring a permanent Vietnam memorial here after a traveling version of the wall came to Wildwood in 2008.
“I asked for help and nobody said no,” DePrinzio said.
Siciliano, an Army veteran who served from 1972 to 1974, said the goal is to recognize the true meaning of Memorial Day while also making sure the event focuses on family fun.
To that end, the tourism authority hired Diane McGraw and her Philadelphia-based company, McGraw Productions, to organize four days of events running from Friday through Monday.
The schedule features everything from the U.S. Coast Guard graduation ceremony to a USO-style variety show featuring Joe Piscopo, Miss America Laura Kaeppler, Broadway actor Michael Longoria, two American Idol finalists and country singer Lee Greenwood.
Local businesses, including hotels, motels and restaurants, have also joined in by offering discounted rates and specials to veterans and active duty military members.
“Anything they can do that will bring people is a good thing,” said Marie Marrone, manager of the Waikiki Oceanfront Inn in Wildwood Crest. “If it brings 10 families, that’s 10 we didn’t have.”
The 50-unit motel is offering discounts and specials for military families over the holiday weekend.
The weekend’s success will be measured in large part by how those businesses fare.
“We are hoping for an awesome response,” Siciliano said. “We want to see this event grow to a countywide event.”
But he stressed the desire to pay tribute to the holiday’s original meaning.
“I think it’s up to every one of us on a daily basis to remember as we go about our lives that there are people waking up in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world fighting for us,” Siciliano said.
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