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Boycott by Austin, others impacts Arizona tourism

Monday, January 7, 2013 by Mark Richardson

PHOENIX, Ariz. – A two-year-old boycott of Arizona led by the City of Austin and other governmental entities nationwide may have contributed to a more than 30 percent decline in out-of-state bookings for conventions and other meetings since 2010, Arizona officials said.


That fall in bookings is linked to convention and meeting planners and cities such as Austin that have declined to bring or attend meetings in usually popular cities such as Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson because of Arizona’s controversial law targeting undocumented immigrants.


In 2010, the Arizona Legislature approved the law, known as HB 1070, which gave state and local police unprecedented powers to check the immigration status of anyone they stopped for traffic or other violations and detain suspects. In May 2010, the Austin City Council passed a resolution ordering the city not do business with Arizona and directed staffers not attend meetings or conventions scheduled there.


Though it is hard to make a direct connection between boycotts by Austin and 14 other cities and the drop in bookings, officials with the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau say the subject of the anti-immigration measure is a regular topic of discussion when they meet with potential convention and meeting groups.  And several large groups have publicly announced they are taking their convention business elsewhere.


Since its passage, much of the Arizona law has been struck down by the courts or is pending the outcome of other legal challenges. While the state senator that introduced the bill was recalled by voters in 2011, other state officials such as Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, continue to strongly back the measure.


Austin Council Member Mike Martinez sponsored the anti-Arizona resolution, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman as co-sponsors. It was approved on a 7-0 vote. Martinez called the resolution essentially a symbolic gesture.


“I don’t believe that Austin had a significant impact on creating that 30 percent reduction, but I do believe that we had a significant impact by taking a symbolic position, but what I felt like was an important position,” he said. “We wanted to discourage folks from spending tourism dollars in a state that harbors what I feel like are some pretty narrow-minded views.”


This past week, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton led a parade of local Arizona officials trying to distance themselves from the stand taken by their elected legislators. The Arizona Republic reported that Stanton told a group of meeting planners that most of the people in Arizona don’t think that way.


“What you may have read about our Legislature – don’t hold against the rest of us,” Stanton said. “The rest of us, we’re normal. We like diversity.”


CVB officials say bookings for the Phoenix Convention Center are down by as much as 30 percent for the current fiscal year compared with 2009. The city is projecting about 185,000 convention guests, down from a high of about 275,000 in 2009. That is expected to cost Phoenix about $132 million in direct spending. 


Tourism is an $18 billion industry in Arizona, employing more than 150,000 people, according to the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association. In addition to conventions, Arizona also has a number of annual major events that draw tourists and their dollars, including the Jackson-Barrett Classic Car Auction, the Phoenix Open PGA Golf Tournament and the six-week-long Cactus League baseball spring training which hosts more than a dozen Major League teams.


Meanwhile, other Sun Belt cities with similar-sized convention facilities, including Austin, San Diego, Denver, San Antonio and Salt Lake City, have experienced guest counts that are either flat or are slowly rebounding. The period between 2009 and 2012 also encompasses some of the toughest times during the Great Recession, and CVB officials say that could also account for lower-than-expected attendance figures.


In Austin, during that same time period, the number of events at the city’s Convention Center have increased 9 percent to 156 in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2012 from 144 in the 2008-09 fiscal year. The total number of people attending those events more than doubled from 145,000 to some 311,000 during the same time period. No figures were available for the amount of business the city may have pulled out of Arizona after the boycott began.


Phoenix officials say they may be just beginning to see the full affect HB 1070 is having on tourism, because large, national conferences and conventions tend to schedule events three to five years in advance. The center is just now realizing losses from groups that removed Arizona from consideration a few years ago, when the law first passed.


“The misperception that our city does not value diversity continues to be an impediment to attracting national convention groups,” said CVB spokesman Scott Dunn. “In some cases, the damage from what happened in 2009 or 2010 won’t wash ashore until 2013 or 2014.”


Austin’s political stand against the Arizona immigration law did not come without some cost – political and otherwise – to the Council members who supported it. Shortly after the Council’s resolution became public, a group of Tea Party members in East Texas began poring over campaign finance filings by all seven Council members. A few weeks later, a bevy of ethics complaints were filed with the Texas Commission on Ethics, charging each Council member with several violations of the state’s campaign finance laws.


The complaints were all minor, and most of the Council members ended up paying small fines of between $50 up to a few hundred dollars. The main person behind the charges, Tea Party member Thomas Curry of Houston, has a long history of filing similar complaints against politicians who do not agree with his ultra-conservative point of view.


In the end, Martinez said the episode was a matter of standing up for his personal beliefs.


“For me, it was a very personal issue in that because of the color of my skin.  If I happened to be in Arizona, I could be questioned as to my citizen status and potentially detained by the police,” he said. “I felt like that’s not the direction the country needs to go in, and as we have done a few other times, the Council took a symbolic position on a national issue and I was proud of my colleagues for supporting the item.”


Richardson, a long-time In Fact Daily copy editor, now lives in Phoenix.

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