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Metro Detroit's Image Improves

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TOM WALSH: Metro Detroit's image improves

Survey says visitors find area safer than in 2000

November 27, 2003

BY TOM WALSH

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Metro Detroit is a safer, more attractive place to visit than it was three years ago. We have a much better airport, too.

Those are highlights of a new survey that compares attitudes of visitors to the region this summer with visitors' answers to the same questions in 2000.

Here are the lowlights:

Detroit's aging Cobo convention center gets poor marks.

Ditto for hotel offerings, business travelers say.

Despite metro Detroit's improvements, the region is perceived as a notch or two less inviting than competing Midwestern cities such as Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago.

Both surveys were conducted by Ernst & Young for the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. In March 2002, the bureau created the Tourism Economic Development Council with a 10-year strategic vision for boosting the region's profile as a tourism destination. Ernst & Young recently drafted the first progress report on this effort, based in part on the 2003 survey of 742 out-of-town visitors interviewed at Detroit Metro Airport, the Detroit Zoo and the Henry Ford.

"We're showing incremental, positive improvement," said Larry Alexander, president and CEO of the convention and visitors bureau, after he reviewed the survey data. "People recognized a change. Things look better, there's a sense that we have a safer city. But we've still got some challenges."

Jim Nicholson, CEO of PVS Chemicals and chairman of the Tourism Economic Development Council, framed the challenges this way: "We really need to juice it up in improving our comparisons to other cities, like Cleveland and St. Louis.

"We've got to build a new convention center if we want to play as a major city. This is a must-do, and we need a regional authority to do it. Cobo is old, it's tired and it's too small," Nicholson said.

He believes next month a task force headed by Detroit's chief development officer will recommend that a brand new convention center be built and that Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick will support a regional approach to funding and running it.

Nicholson said he plans to request progress reports every two years during the council's 10-year tourism campaign. In Ernst & Young's first report, the biggest gain was for the question that asks whether metro Detroit offers a user-friendly airport. This year, 58 percent of visitors agreed, compared to only 46 percent in 2000, before the McNamara terminal opened. It's likely the approval numbers would have been even higher this year, but at least half the respondents at Metro Airport were interviewed at the old Smith terminal.

"The airport numbers were not a surprise to any of us," said Bill Connellan, the bureau's senior vice president, "but I really took heart from the data showing that people think we're a safer and more beautiful city, and that 89 percent think we're a good value for the money." Up from 82 percent in 2000.

Detroit needs all the positive buzz it can get, because the region's tourism industry has been in the dumps since the shock of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. CIC Research Inc., a San Diego firm that studies tourism trends nationwide, provides these bleak numbers about Detroit tourism:

Total visitors to metro Detroit declined from 17.7 million in 2000 to 15.7 million in 2002.

Tourism industry employment declined 16 percent, from 80,000 to 67,000 from 2000-2002.

Total tourism spending dropped from $5.1 billion in 2000 to $4.3 billion in 2001.

Although tourism has suffered across the United States since 9/11, this year's Ernst & Young survey shows Detroit is faring worse than its regional competitors.

When asked to compare metro Detroit with recent visits to Cleveland, St. Louis or Chicago, the survey respondents ranked Detroit lower in each category: tourist attractions, natural beauty, recreation and sports entertainment and family-type attractions. And what's worse, Detroit lost ground to the other cities in the last three years.

Nicholson and Alexander hope future progress reports will show the fruits of tourism projects that are just now beginning to have an impact.

One project is the plan to beautify the I-94 corridor from Metro Airport to downtown Detroit. So far, $9 million in public and private money has been raised and painting of freeway overpasses has begun. That will be followed by landscaping, cleanup and lighting projects.

Other tourism action groups have been formed to work on improving taxi and other transport services, hotel service and the region's image.

This business of reversing Detroit's slide as a tourist and convention destination is an important, but elusive, task for Nicholson, Alexander, Connellan and others leading the effort.

They've identified problem areas and begun attacking them in modest ways. But it's one thing to raise $9 million to spruce up I-94 and quite another to get the state, city and suburban counties to fund a $1-billion convention center.

This tourism campaign will tell much about how strong the regional bonds are among city and suburbs, public and private institutions.

Contact TOM WALSH at 313-223-4430 or [email protected]

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Now that's really good to hear now just think how it will be when the superbowl comes to town anything bad people said bout detorit will be look as a stupid and dumb

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