Tuesday, August 24, 2004

VFW sounded 'Taps' for silly boycott of city

Click here to e-mail Peter Bronson
Last summer, VIPs from the VFW were treated to dinner at Morton's by the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. The VFW left a nice tip. About $19 million.

That's how much 15,000 VFW members and their spouses contributed to downtown last week. But Cincinnati's biggest convention in five years almost landed in another city, if not for a quick change in dinner plans.

The group had reservations at Jeff Ruby's downtown restaurant, Convention and Visitors Bureau vice president Julie Calvert said. The VFW president was in town to check out concerns about the local boycott.

"We found out there were boycott protesters at Ruby's, so we made a last-minute change,'' Calvert said. She thinks it "absolutely'' saved the deal.

As the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opens this week, Cincinnati should celebrate another kind of freedom: It's time to declare the misguided, ineffective, destructive boycott dead, and bury it in the graveyard of lost causes.

The latest news release on the boycott Web site is almost 12 months stale. It's as "over'' as O.J.'s acting career.

And downtown is drawing more celebrity names than a Hollywood Squares reunion. Boycott? What boycott?

During the VFW convention, restaurants were jammed. Occupancy at eight downtown hotels hit 85 percent, with 14,000 room nights at an average of $114 a night. A deli near the convention center ran out of food twice, Calvert said.

Spending on food, transportation and entertainment added up to $19 million, she said.

On both days I visited the VFW convention, a solitary boycott protester held up an offensive sign that hardly drew a second glance among all the obnoxious posters waved by Kerry and Bush supporters.

The sidewalks were full. Downtown felt like a real city again. And here's good news for a boycott-bruised town that often sounds as insecure as the Sally Field of cities: They liked us. They really liked us.

"The restaurants are great,'' said Neal Deibler, a VFW member from Pennsylvania.

"We're leaving lots of money here,'' joked Mike Connors of South Hadley, Mass.

Almost all the visiting veterans I asked said they would love to come back. Some liked us better than San Antonio, Texas, where last year's VFW convention occurred.

Calvert said her team is already working to bring the VFW back in 10 years.

The next big convention for Cincinnati is the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Sept. 19-25, with 11,220 room nights booked. Calvert said "it's highly likely that it may bring the presidential candidates back.''

Bush, Kerry and Oprah in one week is like hosting the publicity Olympics. And it will get better. The convention center is expanding from 160,000 to 200,000 square feet of space, just over the threshold to go from medium to large conventions. That means Cincinnati, now too small for half of the convention business, will be able to recruit 75 percent, Calvert said.

The VFW convention might be just the beginning. Who knows - downtown might even stay awake past 7 p.m.

"It is frankly a validation of what we have been saying for a couple of years, that the boycott is not having any effect on our business," Calvert said.

Nothing exposes boycott lies about "racist Cincinnati'' better than the Freedom Center. But conventions pay downtown's dinner tab and leave big tips.


E-mail pbronson@enquirer.com or call 768-8301.

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