Sunday, September 19, 2004

Events revive as boycott wanes


Downtown crowds defy 3-year-old initiative

By Ken Alltucker and Kevin Aldridge
Enquirer staff writers

More than 750,000 people are expected downtown this weekend for football, food fests and music of all kinds. They may leave $72 million behind - downtown's biggest party weekend in at least two years. So does a downtown boycott still exist?

Three years after a boycott of downtown restaurants, hotels and events was announced, business is as brisk as ever. No one is saying the boycott is over, but it has clearly lost its clout.

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Top performers like Usher and Prince regularly draw thousands of fans downtown. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a new riverfront stop. Convention bookings this year are on pace to finish well ahead of last year's.

No major convention has honored the boycott since the Urban League pulled out in July 2002. Author Barbara Ehrenreich was the last celebrity to cite the boycott when nixing her appearance, in March 2003.

"I haven't seen much evidence of (a boycott) for a long time," Mayor Charlie Luken says.

Pickets still appear occasionally. Boycott leaders say the boycott won't be over until they say it's over - and that won't happen until long-standing racial problems are resolved.

But even they acknowledge that they're working less on a boycott and more on other ways to effect change. The Rev. Damon Lynch III, who led the boycott at its height, is involved in programs to help the homeless and poor and plans to run for City Council next year.

"The boycott as an ongoing tactic needs to be looked at," Lynch says. "While it has provided us with tremendous victories and successes, eventually you can get to a point of diminishing return with any tactic."

Three months after an April 2001 police shooting of a fleeing black man triggered three nights of rioting in Cincinnati, a handful of African-American groups called for a boycott of all shops, restaurants, businesses and conventions from the river to Central Parkway, from Interstate 75 to I-71.

Two key issues

The purpose: Call attention to issues of economic inequality and force improvements in police-community relations.

The downtown boycott plodded along with little impact until February 2002, when actor-comedian Bill Cosby canceled a downtown show. Other celebrities and musicians followed, including R&B bands the Temptations and the O'Jays, Motown legend Smokey Robinson, actress Whoopi Goldberg, jazz-trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and film director Spike Lee.

chart The boycott - amid a sluggish economy - hurt the city's $3.4 billion-a-year travel and tourism industry.

Nine conventions that carried an expected 36,000 hotel room-night bookings canceled because of the boycott or the city's image in the wake of the 2001 riots, according to the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. That's an impact of $22.6 million.

Lynch, who headed the Cincinnati Black United Front, says the boycott "helped bring about a change in direction."

"Cincinnati is not just a good old boys club anymore," he says. "It kept unwanted, but needed, national attention on some of the substantive issues."

Cincinnati's image indeed took a beating. National media depicted a city teeming on the edge of racial unrest - a powder keg awaiting a police shooting or other racial event that would inevitably trigger more trouble.

City officials know that can happen. They say there's still work to be done, in the neighborhoods, in the schools, in the streets. Lynch says the city's actions will continue to be closely monitored.

William Kirkland, president of the African-American Cultural Commission, says signs of a diminished boycott are misleading.

"We've always been a small number," he says. "We don't have to be out every day anymore because the message is out. Picketing is just another tactic, and we always reserve the right to change our tactics."

'Not a factor'

Two years ago, the city's strained relations were at the top of convention planners' checklist when investigating Cincinnati as a possible destination. Now, the topic is rarely discussed.

chart "The boycott is not a factor," says Alan Welch, interim director of the Greater Cincinnati convention bureau. "Most people feel it's certainly not gathered steam, and it seems to be back in the shadows compared to where it was before."

Major downtown venues say no musicians, comedians or other personalities have skipped Cincinnati over the past year and a half. And musicians such as Prince, who canceled in 2002, have since returned. Prince drew more than 13,000 when he performed at U.S. Bank Arena in April.

Prince doesn't comment on "touchy subjects," a publicist says.

But Jon Schwartz, who helps book acts for the riverfront arena, says: "If the boycott isn't dead, it certainly hasn't affected us here. We had Usher play here, and there was not much as a peep from any in the boycott movement. Prince was a huge success."

So far this year, 106 conventions with an expected 55,268 hotel room-nights have signed contracts to come downtown in future years. The bureau expects to close deals with another 53 groups before the end of the year. That would represent a nearly 20 percent increase in meetings this year over last.

The bureau's list of "tentative" conventions shows an increase, too. A total of 271 groups, including 10 African-American conventions, are considering Cincinnati. One of every four tentative groups typically ends up coming.

One image consultant says Cincinnati is big and diverse enough to be known for many things.

"Cities are always sending out multiple signals, and clearly racial trouble is a very bad signal to send out," says Otis White, president of Atlanta-based Civic Strategies Inc., a strategic planning firm that advises cities, businesses and nonprofit groups. "But I think of a lot of things when I think of Cincinnati. There are the sports teams, the river, the corporations."

Reece makes rounds

Welch credits the improved outlook to the expansion of the downtown convention center and an aggressive sales push. The bureau also has sought to bolster ties with African-American convention leaders.

Over the past two years, bureau executives and Vice Mayor Alicia Reece have made regular stops at annual meetings of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners - the chief organization of planners representing the nation's largest African-American organizations.

"If a person hears something or sees something about Cincinnati, they can pick up the phone and call me," Reece says. "I'll be honest and up front, whether it makes Cincinnati look good or not."

The bureau also has wined and dined African-American meeting planners with free trips tied to events such as the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Meeting planners for 14 major African-American convention and trade groups participated in the Freedom Center's opening gala and toured other Cincinnati attractions. African-American stars at the Freedom Center's opening included Oprah Winfrey, actress Angela Bassett and her actor husband Courtney Vance, jazz singer Kathy Wade and acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni.

In February, the nation's largest African-American religious group signed a deal to brings its national convention to Cincinnati in 2008. The National Baptist Convention U.S.A. is expected to generate up to 25,000 hotel room-nights.

Meanwhile, the 8,000-delegate Progressive National Baptists Convention, which canceled its 2002 meeting here, has inquired about a possible meeting later this decade, convention bureau spokesperson Julie Calvert says.

Meeting planner Patricia Tobin accepted the bureau's Freedom Center tour as a chance to see whether Cincinnati would be an appropriate place for her group, the National Black Public Relations Society, to host a convention.

"The fact that people in Cincinnati and the sponsors felt the need to support this project, I see that as a healing step," Tobin says.

The public relations group's conventions usually are held in larger cities such as New York City and Washington D.C., Tobin says. But now, she says, Cincinnati "will definitely be under consideration."

Arts groups also have courted African-American tourists. For example, the Art & Soul campaign features radio and television ads of Cincinnati's arts and cultural offerings. The $400,000 campaign seeks to attract black tourists from Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Columbus and Louisville.

Kathy DeLaura, project director for Art & Soul, doesn't believe the boycott is on the minds of tourists.

"A lot of people have short memories on these things," she says.

The Ohio Classic & Jamboree returned to the banks of the Ohio River this weekend after moving to Cleveland last year because of a scheduling conflict with the Bengals. The four-day event attracts some of the best football teams from historically black colleges, drawing about 35,000 people and generating between $10 million and $12 million for the city.

John Pace, Classic executive director, says the boycott always comes up in talks, but it hasn't changed organizers' position that Cincinnati can host the event.

"That is, we believe that education cannot be the victim of any boycott," Pace says, noting that proceeds from the game benefit historically black colleges and universities. "We believe that the Classic can facilitate change, including the change that some of the boycotters are asking for."

Hotels still wary

Current boycott leaders say the boycott won't be called off until black people gain more political clout and have a stronger voice in how tax dollars are spent.

chart "Why should the boycott be over?" says Iris Roley, vice president of the Cincinnati Black United Front. "Where is the change? Where have things changed so drastically for African-Americans in Cincinnati that the boycott should be called off? I don't see any change."

Some experts say it's typical for a volunteer-led boycott to run out of gas after a couple of years. And it's rare that boycott organizers will call for an official end unless goals and conditions are met.

"There's a reluctance of any group to say it's over," says Monroe Friedman, a retired Eastern Michigan University psychology professor and boycott researcher. "You've invested so much in it, you're unwilling to say it's over."

But Friedman says a dying boycott could be re-energized by new leadership or a political or catastrophic event that provides a new spark.

Some downtown hoteliers are still wary of the boycott even if it hasn't claimed recent success.

Scott Allen is president of the Cincinnati Hotel Association, which represents downtown hotels. He says the boycott has harmed downtown's attractions.

"It may not have as much of an impact as it once did, but it still affects people's decision to come to Cincinnati," Allen says. "It's more of an immeasurable number of people who will not even consider coming to Cincinnati."

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E-mail kalltucker@enquirer.com and kaldridge@enquirer.com




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