Tickets will go on sale Monday for this summer's Tall Ships festival, which can attract about 250,000 people to Lake Superior.
That's how many came to the port city in 2010 to see, board and sail on grand sailing ships that evoke the nation's nautical past in the largest event ever held in northeast Minnesota.
With a possible 11 ships scheduled to arrive in Duluth for the event July 25-29, organizers are hoping for an even bigger draw this year.
Duluth hosted its first Tall Ships festival in 2008, when three of the wooden ships sailed to the world's most inland sea port.
The crowds caught everyone by surprise, said Tony Boen, regional manager for Grandma's Restaurant Co.
"I couldn't believe it, frankly. The people were crowded along the whole canal and the whole shore, and it was packed," Boen recalled. "I can't even describe it well enough. Packed. Like you couldn't move. People just wanting to see those boats come in."
That year, 125,000 people jammed into Duluth's Canal Park, where Grandma's occupies a prime location overlooking the Aerial Lift Bridge spanning the shipping canal.
"We could not rent enough trucks and space to store the food we needed for that weekend," Boen said. "We ended up having to try to get out of Canal Park to get up to, say, Sam's Club, or have our purveyors get down, because the roads were like a parking lot, they were so stuffed with people."
Boen said the festivals in 2008 and 2010 remain the restaurant's most profitable periods since it first opened in the 1970s.
Jim Paquette, general manager of Canal Park Lodge, said tall ships are also a boon for hotels, even during the summer when they are usually full.
"But with an event like this, we're able to increase our rates because the demand is so high, so it's good for all of us," Paquette said. "I know the restaurants, they fill, and they fill, and they fill again, so just having all the people around really helps the business community."
The 2010 festival pumped an estimated $15 million into the local economy, said Terry Mattson, CEO of Visit Duluth, the city's tourism bureau.
"This was by far the biggest [event] that we've ever done in Duluth," Mattson said. "In fact, that attendance rivals that of a weekend at the Minnesota State Fair."
Mattson said the festival's budget will approach $1 million this year. He said it can cost as much as $40,000 to book just one of the ships.
"The sailing vessels themselves are the rock stars," Mattson said. "You contract with each ship individually as you would with a performing artist."
The ships will compete in a series of races across the Great Lakes this summer and will visit other ports, including Chicago and Green Bay. They will also commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
One of the vessels coming to Duluth, the Brig Niagra, is a reproduction of a ship that helped defeat a British squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie.
Those cannon shots will ring across Lake Superior when the Duluth Tall Ships festival begins in late July.