Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Rejection hurts already-struggling downtown

By Ken Alltucker kalltucker@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Urban League's decision Monday to reject plans to host its 2003 national convention in Cincinnati is a huge blow for the city's struggling hospitality industry, tourism officials and hoteliers said.

        The four-day convention promised to bring 4,000 to 5,000 visitors and fill up to 9,000 room nights. It could have been an economic jolt of $3.4 million to $4.3 million for hotels, shops and restaurants.

        Perhaps more importantly, it would have signaled that Cincinnati's reforms undertaken since April 2001's riots were good enough to convince the venerable civil rights group that the city was on the right path.

        “It's a huge disappointment,” said Lisa Haller, president of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We felt the announcement last week was a very proactive step for us.”

        Last Thursday, Ms. Haller, local Urban League chief executive Sheila Adams, Mayor Charlie Luken and others trumpeted the Urban League's decision to keep its August 2003 convention in Cincinnati despite the continuing racially charged climate. But one day later, Cincinnati Police announced the suspension of its highest-ranking African-American officer, Assistant Chief Ron Twitty, while he is investigated for allegedly lying about a car accident.

        In a prepared statement released Monday afternoon, Urban League President Hugh B. Price said he was “deeply upset” over the timing of Lt. Col. Twitty's suspension, and he described the prospect of pickets at Urban League offices in Cincinnati and other cities as “utterly unacceptable.”

        Hoteliers say the financial impact of the Urban League convention is a small part of the loss. The decision further tarnishes the city's image.

        “You don't even have a clue the amount we lose by people not picking up the phone,” said Al Eastman, director of sales and marketing for the downtown 321-room Crowne Plaza Hotel, which expected strong bookings from the convention.

        There is also a potential ripple effect because the Urban League has ties to so many large corporations, Ms. Haller said.

        Local groups organizing a boycott of the city have claimed a string of victories as several predominately African-American groups have chosen to withdraw conventions from Cincinnati, including the 8,000-delegate Progressive National Baptist Convention.

        The boycott and other factors such as the poor economy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have conspired to push hotel occupancy rates for Cincinnati's downtown and suburban hotels below 50 percent. Downtown hotels say the convention schedule for July and August is particularly barren, forcing managers to aggressively recruit leisure travelers who tend to spend less money than convention attendees.

        The convention bureau will continue its strategy of contacting business and trade groups that already have meetings scheduled in Cincinnati.

        Mr. Eastman said all downtown businesses will be pinched by the Urban League's decision.

        “You can't say it's just the hotels and restaurants,” harmed by the boycott, Mr. Eastman said. “You have retail and all kinds of businesses harmed.”


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