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New Orleans uneasily greets convention

Just as librarians begin to arrive at the convention center - that one - the National Guard comes to quell street violence.

Published June 22, 2006

NEW ORLEANS - This week's start of the American Library Association convention in New Orleans is more than a boost to the typically slow summer convention season: It's a prime, post-Katrina test of the city's ability to host a huge meeting.

A crowd of 18,000 is expected for the weeklong meeting that starts Thursday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which has undergone massive repairs and refurbishing since being used as a Katrina evacuation shelter last year.

But the event coincides with another low point for a city still struggling to repair homes and businesses 10 months after the storm. This week, as librarians converge on the city, National Guard troops are starting a second tour of duty to supplement local police protection.

Mayor Ray Nagin called for help from the Guard and state police Monday after the weekend shooting deaths of five teenagers - the city's deadliest attack in at least 11 years. Already this year, the city's death toll is above 50, raising fears of spiking violence despite half the population still living elsewhere.

Tourism officials say they're concerned about the negative backlash the uptick in violent crime and Guard deployment could generate, but they emphasize the recent rash of killings has been centered on drug activity - and away from the convention district.

What's more, guardsmen are expected to take over patrols in largely deserted areas of the city, where looting is still a problem, so the city's police force can beef up patrols in more populated neighborhoods like the French Quarter and Central Business District.

"In every major urban setting today, you have senseless drug-related crimes that are horrifying to all of us but, at the same time, do not reflect the security of the tourist-related areas of the city," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors District.

Thus far, the most recent violence seems to have had little effect on the librarians.

A few worried ALA members called the organization Tuesday to inquire about the situation, said spokeswoman Larra Clark, but they still planned to attend.

She said the ALA sent members a two-page statement from the New Orleans Metropolitan Tourism and Convention Bureau that said, in part, "The murders have no bearing on any crime or safety issues in the areas of the city frequented by tourists."

"I don't know if they would have canceled if they didn't hear back, but they had concerns," Clark said.

Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of Greater New Orleans, a private watchdog group, said he considered the increased protection a plus for locals and visitors alike, "freeing up police to work in parts of the city experiencing crime problems."

Meanwhile, the convention center, which reopened to a small meeting in February, is preparing for the return of groups with large numbers of delegates. This week, before the librarians arrive, the Air & Waste Management Association - with an expected crowd of 3,000 - and the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics - a group of about 1,500 - are meeting at the convention hall.

Before Katrina, conventions pumped an estimated $6-billion annually into the New Orleans-area economy. The last four months of the 2005 season were a total loss, and only now is the convention center in position to be able to recoup lost business.

Almost all convention-district and French Quarter hotels are open to out-of-towners after spending months housing evacuees and rescue workers.

Perry said the three conventions this week will give the city a $25-million economic boost.

"That's a lot in a downtime in the summer," he said, noting the revival of major conventions also is expected to attract members of the national trade and business media.

For now, the convention business is running just over a third of what it expected this year before Katrina, Perry said. For next year, about 50 to 60 percent of the business expected before Katrina is in place, with hopes of raising that to 70 percent.

There are 14 other major meetings booked for the convention center for the remainder of 2006.

Although only a fraction of the city's restaurants are serving again, all but a few of the well-known restaurants in the French Quarter, Warehouse District and Garden District that attract conventiongoers have reopened, said Tom Weatherly, vice president for communications at the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

"The stakes are very high for New Orleans," Weatherly said. "The hospitality industry understands the particular importance of this convention and making sure it runs smoothly."

[Last modified June 22, 2006, 06:08:20]

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