February 8, 2015
By John Laidler
Each year, about 1.5 million people flock to Plymouth to see for themselves the place where the Pilgrims came ashore and forged the settlement so well known to a future nation’s schoolchildren.
Now, organizers are gearing for a commemoration of those founding events that will shine an international spotlight on the seaside town and probably swell its already robust visitor traffic.
Throughout 2020, a wide-ranging assortment of events will mark the 400th anniversary of the 1620 Mayflower voyage, the landing of the Pilgrims, and the founding of Plymouth Colony, as well as the interactions between the settlers and the native Wampanoag people.
“This is an opportunity for us to give some real national recognition to this piece of history and to invite people to come and experience the authentic place where it all happened,” said Michele Pecoraro, executive director of Plymouth 400, the nonprofit planning the commemoration.
The Plymouth event could gain an even higher profile because it kicks off a series of prominent 400th-anniversary observances in Massachusetts, including those of Quincy in 2025, Salem in 2026, and Boston in 2030, with Boston also a potential host to the Olympics in 2024.
While Plymouth’s big birthday party is five years away, the group’s efforts have recently kicked into higher gear. Last year, the group hired its first full-time staff and last summer and fall held an inaugural season of pre-commemoration events.
The planning effort hit a bump in December when the state cut $125,000 from the $250,000 it had budgeted for the initiative, as part of its overall mid-year spending reductions. Pecoraro said the cut would not impede the progress of the planning, though she said public investment will be key to attracting private support.
While Plymouth will play host to the major events, organizers and officials emphasize that the commemoration is much broader than a typical municipal anniversary celebration.
“I look at it as a worldwide celebration,” said state Representative Mathew Muratore, a Plymouth Republican who was until recently a selectman. “We like to think America was founded here.”
“For all intents and purposes, the United States is turning 400,” agreed state Senator Vinny deMacedo, a Plymouth Republican, observing, “The founding of religious liberty and the founding of the freedom we know of in the nation. . . . It all started here in Plymouth.
“It’s an impressive story, and I think it is incumbent on us to make sure we get it right,” he continued. “We have to make sure we are prepared for and can put together a celebration worthy of this milestone.”
Part of the history organizers plan to tell is the often-overlooked tale of the Wampanoag people the Pilgrims encountered, about 90 of whom joined the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
One of the board members of Plymouth 400 is Linda Coombs, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe who serves as program manager for the Aquinnah Cultural Center.
“I’m looking at it as an opportunity to balance the history books because, until now, it’s been all about the Pilgrims and the beginnings of America. Everyone knows that story — after the first so-called Thanksgiving, we just disappeared,” Coombs said of the Wampanoag people. “But we didn’t actually disappear. A lot of things happened, and much of that history is unknown.
“I just think after 400 years, it’s time to educate people so they understand the Wampanoag people are still here and what we do today and what our history is,” she added.
The signature events will include an opening ceremony; a globally linked event highlighting the role of religious freedom in the American story; a cultural festival; and an event focusing on Wampanoag culture. There will also be an international webcast for elementary school students; an international youth summit, and a national Thanksgiving program.
Additionally, organizers last fall launched a regional traveling exhibition on Wampanoag history, and in 2016 will initiate a national display on the Pilgrim and Wampanoag stories. Both will gradually expand leading up to 2020.
Smaller local events are also being held to help build interest in the commemoration, including “Illuminate,” a candle-lighting event held last Thanksgiving week, and a Midnight Masquerade Ball held on New Year’s Eve. The plan is that both become annual staples.
For all its international scope, organizers say, the commemoration also presents special opportunities for the town and this region, including an all-but-certain boost for the local tourist industry.
Paul Cripps, executive director of the town’s tourist marketing group, Destination Plymouth, and of the Plymouth County Development Council, said visitors last year pumped more than $350 million into the town’s economy.
Cripps said the visitor numbers in 2020 could be conservatively projected at three times the normal level, with the entire region, including Cape Cod, benefiting from the influx.
The challenge, he said, is to make sure the town and region are ready to take care of the visitors when they come, including ensuring there are enough available hotel rooms, adequate parking, and viable mass transit options. He said those and other details will be addressed in the multi-year planning process.
The town and its state lawmakers, meanwhile, are pursuing efforts to secure state money to help meet some of those needs, including expanded parking behind Memorial Hall, an upgrade to a wharf, and a dredging of the harbor.
Plymouth is also beginning another project with an eye toward the past, in this case about two centuries back, not four. A $35 million venture involves renovating and expanding the venerable 1820 courthouse building into a new town hall.
Kenneth Tavares, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said the 400th anniversary is an opportunity for the town to raise its long-term visibility, citing Plymouth’s historical connection to the Pilgrims and other lesser-known chapters in its history — including its waves of immigrants through the centuries — that are central to the American story.
“We are ready to take center stage and to teach how government and a community can develop and survive,’’ he said. “We’ve done that for 400 years.”