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Source: Chicago Tribune
Author: Kathy Bergen
Chicago’s extensive efforts to reinvigorate its convention and tourism industries could be damaged unless the city quickly defuses the violent crime wave that has exploded in its neighborhoods and nicked the downtown, the city’s top convention and tourism official said Wednesday.
“We hope this sunsets quickly because all the good work we’re doing regionally, nationally and internationally, if this is not contained in a reasonable period of time, it will have an impact,” Don Welsh, president and chief executive of Choose Chicago, said in a morning meeting withthe Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board.
News reports of several unprovoked attacks by youths in the Michigan Avenue corridor and of the surge in homicides in some impoverished Chicago neighborhoods are triggering concerned calls to Choose Chicago, the newly restructured not-for-profit agency that combines the city’s convention bureau and its office of tourism and culture. The issue has gained national attention in The New York Times and other media.
“There are inquiries that are coming in from meeting planners that are saying, ‘Hey, I’m reading about what’s taken place in your city. Is your city safe?'” Welsh said. His organization received five to six such calls in the last few weeks, at this point seeking information, not cancellations, he said at the meeting.
Later in the afternoon he downplayed the inquiries, saying the calls came over a period of six weeks and “if anything, it’s dissipating a little bit. It’s not omnipresent; it’s a bit of a nuisance.”
Chicago police have put more officers on patrol along the Magnificent Mile and its surrounding areas in light of the mob attacks. This includes officers who are normally assigned to other parts of the city.
The city has seen its homicide rate increase by 37.8 percent in the first six months of the year, to 259 killings, and another 18 homicides were reported as of Wednesday afternoon.
The mayor’s office said Wednesday that overall crime was down 10 percent for the year so far.
“We are actively working to implement strategies to continue to lower this number,” Sarah Hamilton, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said. “More and more people are coming to Chicago. … They understand that these incidents are isolated to gangs, and visitors are not at risk.”
Welsh, at the editorial board meeting, said Choose Chicago officials are sharing a police map with concerned meeting planners to stress that most issues are outside the downtown area. In the later interview, he said his organization was just referring people to a crime map on the city’s website.
“People realize … we have a very safe, clean downtown,” Welsh said.
The crime issue is rearing its head as the city completes an overhaul of its McCormick Place convention business aimed at becoming more competitive with lower-cost cities and beefing up resources to market the city, Choose Chicago officials said.
“We’re now back in the game,” Bruce Rauner, chairman of the organization, told the editorial board.
For fiscal 2013, which began July 1, Choose Chicago has a budget of $24.4 million, which includes $2.1 million from the city for incorporating the functions of its former tourism office. The budget is up significantly from just three years ago, when it was $13.2 million.
During the editorial board meeting and in the group’s printed materials, Choose Chicago officials said nearly 30 percent of revenue was from members and other private sources, but they later revised the figure and said 20 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from private sources. The rest comes from public funding, including a slice of the state’s hotel tax.
With its bigger budget, it has embarked on a regional television ad campaign aimed at the drive-in leisure market and has opened sales arms in eight foreign cities. The city is seeing continuing recovery in visitor levels and hotel occupancy rates.
Visitation levels were 43.6 million in 2011, up from 39.2 million in 2010 but still below 46.3 million in 2007. Hotel occupancy is on the rise, too, with a particularly strong June, but the city is still a year or two away from reaching pre-recession annual levels, Welsh has said.
Choose Chicago said more push is needed if it is to reach goals set by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to increase visitors to 50 million by 2020. Officials are hoping hotel tax growth will propel its budget to as much as $40 million over time, though if that doesn’t happen, they would like to get a greater percentage of the state hotel tax or perhaps some sort of surcharge on hotel room rentals.
Though the third-largest city in the U.S., Chicago has a tourism budget that is far less than those for many major cities, Choose Chicago said. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is the leader, planning to spend about $127 million this fiscal year on marketing, advertising and special events, according to its budget document. Orlando, Fla.’s budget is nearly $50 million and New York’s is $40 million, according to data compiled by Choose Chicago.
Chicago has a long way to go to meet its potential as a destination for conventioneers, business travelers and tourists, Rauner said.
“We are nowhere near where we should be for international visitors or national U.S. visitors from the coasts, and we can grow this dramatically and with major economic impact for the city over the next few years,” he said.
Tribune reporter Jeremy Gorner contributed.