by Brendan M. Lynch | July 01, 2004

CincinnatiThe Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, already under pressure from a boycott on conventions following the 2001 police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, has suffered a new setback: On May 21, Lisa Haller, the bureau’s president and CEO, abruptly resigned.
     Haller, who cited personal reasons for her move, was two years into a three-year contract; she was replaced on an interim basis by Cincinnati-based Proctor & Gamble executive Alan Welsh.
     The resignation is the latest fallout in a city divided by the shooting of Timothy Thomas, 19, an incident that sparked rioting, a loss of convention business and a hot-tempered debate on racial relations that continues to roil the local hospitality industry.
     “The civil unrest of 2001 was a wake-up call,” said Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York City-based advocacy group that supports Cincinatti’s Boycott Council, whose members represent a coalition of local African-American organizations calling for changes in policing practices and other measures.
     “The council has been largely successful in getting major artists and conventions not to come to Cincinnati,” Daniels added. The Boycott Council claims the city has lost $86 million from groups honoring the protest.
     Additionally, gay rights groups have joined the boycott, citing Cincinnati voters’ 1993 passage of Article XII, an amendment to the city’s charter that bars the city council from passing any law meant to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.
     The Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau has tried to handle the furor by reaching out to minority groups and meeting planners.
“There are very likely groups out there that won’t come to Cincinnati because of the boycott, or because of Article XII,” said bureau spokesperson Julie Calvert. “We would be naive to think there aren’t. But of the groups we have contacted, nobody has refused to work with us due to the boycott.”
     On May 13, the GCCVB helped organize a St. Louis meeting between Cincinnati’s senior African-American official, Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, and the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners. The bureau also hosted the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus on a tour of the city last year.
     While the GCCVB is not involved in negotiating a response to the boycott, it must deal with its impact. According to the bureau, 124,000 room nights were booked locally in 2003, but that number is expected to plummet to 113,000 for 2004 and 65,000 in 2005.
     Organizations that have canceled events in Cincinnati since 2001 include the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Union of Black Episcopalians.
     “We got a letter from our chapter president there saying the climate wasn’t good,” said retired U.S. Air Force Major Henry Sanford, former executive director of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which wound up moving its meeting to Atlanta.
     Other groups will visit the city despite the boycott. The 18,000-delegate National Baptist Convention is scheduled for 2008, and the North American Roller Hockey Championship will be held in Cincinnati this month.
With a population that is 43 percent black, Cincinnati is engaged in a court-ordered “collaborative agreement” between the city, its Fraternal Order of Police, the A.C.L.U. and the Black United Front (a member of the Boycott Council), designed to ease tension between local police and African-American citizens.
     The boycott’s slam to Cincinnati, however, has not kept the city from undertaking a $160 million convention center expansion, to be completed in mid-2006. Indeed, the facade of the renovated Cinergy Center will feature a grid of angled panels that proudly spell “Cincinnati” in reflective, 50-foot-tall letters.