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Report: Tourism Chief Backtracks After Reports That Crime Is Hurting Efforts

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Don Welsh

Don Welsh, chief executive officer of Choose Chicago. (Credit: CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — The man in charge of promoting Chicago conventions and tourism is backpedaling on reports quoting him as saying that the recent crime wave in the city is going to damage his best efforts, unless it is quickly quelled.

As WBBM Newsradio’s David Roe reports, Don Welsh, president and chief executive officer of Choose Chicago, recently told the Chicago Tribune editorial board that he has received five or six calls in recent weeks from meeting planners who are now doubting whether it is even safe to hold their meetings in Chicago.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s David Roe reports

Welsh says unless the crime wave “sunsets quickly,” because it is certain to have an impact otherwise.

Chicago has garnered national headlines as it has seen a major spike in homicides this year, with at least 250 through the end of June – up 36 percent compared to the same time period this year.

The Tribune reports the concerns stem in part from the attacks by teenage mobs that have struck River North, Streeterville and the area around the Magnificent Mile – which made headlines for the second consecutive summer last month. The concerns also stem from the rash of homicides in the city’s impoverished neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

But in a later interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Welsh backpedaled and said the Tribune accounts had been “misinterpreted” and “taken out of context.”

Welsh said meeting planners have indeed called him questioning whether or not the areas around downtown and McCormick Place are safe, but he said he had an answer for those inquiries.

When the out-of-town planners asked if the serious violence was taking place in the heart of the city where meetings would be held, Welsh told the Sun-Times that his answer was an “emphatic no.”

Welsh said overall crime is still down, and the shootings and gang violence are isolated to remote neighborhoods outside the downtown core where tourists would go, the Sun-Times reported. Even in the case of a gang-related shooting late last month on Ontario Street right off the Magnificent Mile, Welsh characterized the incident as “isolated,” the newspaper reported.

Welsh also told the Sun-Times that there have been many “positive trends” that are helping meet Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of attracting 10 million more visitors by 2020. He told the newspaper that last month was “probably the best June for history in the city,” and that Choose Chicago had retained $3 billion in convention business and opened international sales offices in Brazil and Japan.

Speaking to CBS 2 last week, Welsh likewise acknowledged there is a perception problem when it comes to violence in Chicago.

“I think we’re trying to aggressively and prudently deal with this issue, but our hope is that it quickly comes to an end, as everybody in Chicago is,” he said. “I think, for the most part, people realize it’s not taking place in downtown Chicago. There is a tremendous number of police officers on the street. I think there is always a feeling of safety and security here.”

Welsh also told CBS 2 that many big cities have one or two major attractions that bring in tourists, but Chicago has a lot more.

“I think, in the summertime, clearly … Millennium Park is a big, big driver of what we do. Navy Pier continues to be a big driver,” he said. “I think the more and more we see about our great restaurants, and our retail, clearly our culinary scene here in the city – people are actually coming here from around the world now to experience our dining scene here.”

He also pointed to Lake Michigan, the lakefront trails, the downtown Theater District, the Taste of Chicago, and Lollapalooza as big draws for Chicago.

Tourists who talked to CBS 2 on Friday agreed.

Wisconsin resident Tom Hauterbrook said, “I notice crime. Everywhere, though, crime and murder is up. That’s par for the economy, too, so it didn’t affect me at all.”

Christine Roebuck, visiting from Canada, said, “We know there’s crime everywhere. I mean, even in Canada, we have our issues.”

Karen Salamone, from Cleveland, said she wasn’t surprised to hear about Chicago’s recent problems with violence, and it didn’t deter her from making a trip to the city.

“It’s very hot. I think people have tempers, and it’s just what’s happening right now,” she said.

As to the issue of mob attacks and gang violence, police Supt. Garry McCarthy has said repeatedly that they are separate issues.

“We have to separate the two,” McCarthy said on the CBS 2 Morning News last month. “We’re talking about gang violence in the neighborhoods – that’s been going on for 40, 50, 60 years. Somebody getting mugged downtown on their way back from work – a whole separate issue, and we have to manage those differently. We have deployments that we have to make sure are accurate. We have to make sure the cops are where they’re supposed to be, and preventing those incidents from happening. We did it last year. We’ll get it done again.”

While some news accounts and commentary sites portrayed the mob attacks – particularly last summer – as targeting tourists, high-profile attacks in which tourists were confirmed to be the victims have been few and far between for many years.

In fact, one purported attack that caused widespread alarm two years ago turned out to be a fabrication by its alleged victim.

Iowa doctor Gary Hunninghake had claimed he robbed of his wallet and Blackberry and stabbed repeatedly as he jogged on the Riverwalk in April 2010. But he later admitted that his stab wounds had been self-inflicted, and pleaded guilty several months later to misdemeanor disorderly conduct for making the attack up.

Later reports revealed that Hunninghake was under investigation for child pornography by the University of Iowa when he came to Chicago and claimed he was attacked.

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