Monday, May 14, 2001

City needs to boost image fast

Business, tourism threatened by riots

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati must create a new image — and fast. That's the consensus of local and national experts who say the city's reputation has been battered in the past month by footage of violence on the streets and racial strife broadcast worldwide.

        The aftermath of April's riots and civil unrest has rippled throughout downtown and Over-the-Rhine as hotel owners, restaurateurs and shop owners struggle to draw suburban customers and regional tourists.

        Convention planners have picked other cities over Cincinnati. High school proms have been moved. Downtown and Over-the-Rhine merchants say business has slowed to a crawl. And the popular music festival, Jammin' on Main, was canceled last week because of poor ticket sales and concerns about potential disruptions from protesters.

        Officer Stephen Roach, 27, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to misdemeanor charges of negligent homicide and ob structing official business for the April 7 shooting death of Timothy Thomas, 19.

        As Mayor Charlie Luken forms his race relations commission to address some of the causes of the protesters' discontent, business groups and downtown boosters are working behind the scenes on a new campaign to mend the city's image.

        “We don't have any fancy slogan, yet,” said Rick Greiwe, who heads the downtown advocacy group Downtown Cincinnati Inc. “Hopefully we will come up with a campaign that is sensitive and inclusive.”

        Mr. Greiwe describes the campaign as an effort among local public relations and advertising firms, arts and business groups and others loosely coordinated by DCI. He plans to gather input from focus groups next week and launch the campaign soon after.

Legion chooses Salt Lake
               Downtown and Over-the-Rhine merchants and convention officials say a fix is desperately needed.

        The day Mr. Thomas was shot and killed by police in an Over-the-Rhine alley, convention officials were courting top executives at the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization. The police shooting triggered two days of rioting followed by weeks of contentious debate, peaceful protests and sit-ins at restaurants.

        Last week, the veterans group informed local officials that it planned to take its 2006 convention — and about 20,000 hotel room bookings — to Salt Lake City instead of Cincinnati, Indianapolis or Pittsburgh.

        American Legion officials cited Cincinnati's civil unrest as one factor in its decision, according to Dave Anderson, Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau board chairman.

        “I came away from that meeting very optimistic about Cincinnati's chances,” Mr. Anderson said of American Legion's April 7 trip to Cincinnati. “This undoes an awful lot of fine work.”

        An American Legion spokesman denied Friday that his group picked Salt Lake City over Cincinnati because of the riots. The spokesman said other, unspecified factors favored Salt Lake City.

Other defections
               A relatively small 150 room-night convention recently canceled, said Gayle Harden-Renfro, convention bureau spokeswoman. She declined to offer details about the convention.

        And at least three high schools abandoned plans to dance the night away at the convention center, choosing suburban prom locations instead. Five also were canceled at Music Hall's Ballroom.

        Convention Center Manager Dale Lewis said the real impact will be the loss of business meetings like the American Legion group.

        “The future business is going to suffer,” Mr. Lewis said. “It's certainly going to have a negative effect on that.”

        Some of the protesters' influence became evident last week with the announcement that Pepsi's Jammin' on Main was canceled. The Rev. Damon Lynch III, who heads the civil rights group Black United Front, promised future civil disobedience and said Memorial Day Weekend's Taste of Cincinnati should be canceled. He backed off that statement one day later.

        Mr. Lynch's strategy — using economics as a weapon for social change -—is a common tool for civil rights leaders, according to Mike Paul, president of MPG and Associates, a New York-based crisis communications firm.

        When a region's economy is harmed by protest, “that's when you stop and listen,” Mr. Paul said.

        Negative publicity has sullied Cincinnati's reputation nationally, he said. The city can rebound quickly if it acts on the concerns of the protesters and rebuilds the city's image.

        He likened the city's problems to a publicly traded corporation with a rapid dip in stock price following bad news.

        “The stock we're talking about is the city of Cincinnati,” Mr. Paul said. “What is it worth today? Cincinnati's stock is taking a hit right now.”

Convincing visitors
               The problem facing local leaders is that they must convince suburbanites as well as tourists that the city is on the mend.

        Mr. Greiwe said the DCI campaign will likely include some type of invitation to entice suburban residents downtown.

        Convention bureau staff have adopted a different strategy: thanking visitors who come to the city and encouraging reporters to write positive news stories despite the problems.

        Stephen Roulac, an author and founder of San Francisco-based consulting firm, said fishing for positive media coverage only works if it's backed by swift, real action.

        “The point is image is reality in these media-dominated times,” says Mr. Roulac. “There has to be massive, visible action.”

        Joe Kramer, vice president of economic development for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, said the city must avoid superficial fixes that could backfire down the road.

        “We certainly don't need to window dress what happened,” said Mr. Kramer. ""You build image based on steps you have taken to actually address the concerns.

        “I clearly believe what we do not need right now is a slogan.”


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