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More businesses open but reception varies

NAACP officials are concerned about the estimated 200 arrests made by Saturday afternoon.

By JOUNICE L. NEALY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000


DAYTONA BEACH -- Three years ago, the Sky Rocket beachside bungee cord ride here was open for business during Black College Reunion. The operators made no money, the manager said, so they decided to shut it down during the annual celebration.

But this year, after BCR organizers showed vendors pamphlets with a slate of BCR events, Future Amusement Inc. opened the bungee ride for reunion weekend.

photo
[Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
Black College Reunion participants stroll Daytona Beach on Saturday afternoon.
On Saturday, a steady stream of thrill-seekers waited to swing from a bungee cord.

"I can't complain," said Will Eubanks, who manages the ride. He said he found it hard to believe that previous managers had missed out on so much business.

To local leaders, this is a symbol of progress. It's one more business that has opened its doors to black patrons. Closed businesses in past years had caused complaints of racism.

"There's definitely more to do" this year, said Cynthia Slater, first vice president of the Daytona Beach branch of the NAACP. "More businesses are open. I don't know whether they felt threatened, or if they felt there needs to be a change."

The Black College Reunion, which draws about 100,000 mostly young African-Americans to Daytona Beach, has undergone a year of controversy.

Last year, the city was sued over its plans to restrict traffic access to the beach. It dropped the plan. Then after the event, the NAACP received dozens of complaints about unfair treatment by merchants. Two discrimination lawsuits against Adam's Mark hotels were filed. The hotel company settled the lawsuits for $8-million.

This year, federal, state and local leaders sought strategies to improve BCR. The result was more events, including several concerts, a basketball tournament and a comedy show.

Tyrone Moore, a 23-year-old Bethune-Cookman College graduate, said he felt the change Saturday. He saw signs welcoming BCR guests and more advertisements than the previous five years, indicators that the city has made strides.

But even those who detect progress said some of last year's sources of discontent remain.

Slater said that NAACP officials were concerned about the estimated 200 arrests that had been made by Saturday afternoon. Most were for misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct and possession of small amounts of drugs, said Sonja Wiles, a spokeswoman for the Daytona Beach police.

Ava Bentley, 29, of Orlando, was put off by the rules that an IHOP restaurant posted on its window for BCR guests, especially the one that said steaks were not available because of limited grill space. As occurred last year, BCR visitors were told in writing that all members of the party must be present to be seated, no separate checks, no take-out orders and no smoking.

There were no such rules posted during other spring break weekends, but those weekends do not draw nearly as many people as Black College Reunion.

Still, some feel that treatment by merchants is unfair and race-based.

"I think they're trying more . . . but it's still not the same as when whites come to Daytona," said Charmane Caldwell, 23, a student at Florida State University.

A BCR regular years ago, 29-year-old Sharon Gainer said some of the same T-shirt shops and pizzerias that stay open late for Bike Week close early during BCR.

"It's kind of obvious they don't want us to be here," said Gainer of Orlando. "Maybe we'll see some improvement next year."

One improvement that officials made this year was adding more ambassadors, volunteers who walk through the crowd to greet visitors. Along with teams of clergy known as the God Squad, the ambassadors -- among them government officials -- want to polish the event's tarnished reputation.

"We're fighting this racism," said Mildred Everle, of Daytona Beach. "We want to let these people know that we welcome them."

Starr Collins, a BCR hot dog vendor, said she heard rumors of thefts and violence during the event. But the BCR rookie said she had seen none of that. "I've had a great time," said Collins, who lives in Port Orange.

Dean O'Brien, president of the Halifax Event Management Group, which organized this year's BCR, said that the presence of government officials and volunteers in the streets was a significant improvement.

"The business community did their part. They're open and doing events," O'Brien said. For the first time, BCR events had significant corporate backers, including BET.com, General Motors, Walt Disney World and Adam's Mark Hotels & Resorts.

Still, he said, "we still have a ways to go."

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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