The May summits of world leaders in Chicago are an unmatched opportunity to build the city's global image and to attract more foreign visitors, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his supporters said Wednesday in a pitch for cooperation that stayed away from potential downsides like the violent protests that have marred similar meetings in the past.
Dismissing local coverage of potential summit costs as unproductive negativism, the organizers sought to put the focus on the estimated attendance of 15,000 at the back-to-back G-8 and NATO summits, including up to 60 heads of state and 3,000 overseas journalists who they hope will be wowed by Chicago.
"Clearly this meeting will be the highest-profile meeting we've ever hosted … This will be the Super Bowl of meetings and this will carry on for many, many years after what takes place just a couple of months from now," Don Welsh, president and CEO of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau, said Wednesday morning.
And it's a boost the city dearly needs, said tourism officials, who found themselves in the uncomfortable and uncommon position of citing one of the city's weak spots — that it ranks 10th among U.S. cities in the number of international visitors yearly.
But questions remain about how realistic it is to expect an image and tourism boost from meetings that will draw a fraction of the audience that comes to a typical large trade show here — especially when the international summits also are likely to draw thousands of protesters.
"In many ways, this is just a disaster waiting to happen," said Allen Sanderson, an economist at the University of Chicago. "I love this city and I hope this goes well, or at least mostly well, but it's just fraught with danger."
The G-8 and NATO are magnets for protests, the weather likely will be mild, the city is easy to fly into and it's an election year — all factors that can feed protests, he said.
"The visuals — there's just no way any TV network would not show that," he said.
Still, organizers, city officials and other observers say the potential rewards outweigh the risks.
"We are a world-class city with world-class potential," Emanuel said at an unrelated event. "We always will do well when people come see Chicago and Chicago can tell its story. It's a huge opportunity for the tourism industry, which we need to move up in the ranks of the country."
Global cities expert Saskia Sassen, who recently cited Chicago as a notable strategic urban center in Foreign Policy magazine, said that there will be some disruption and cost to locals from the security and demonstrations but that those problems could be outweighed by the payoff.
"If a city is going to play in this emerging geopolitical space, then I think those costs are worth it," said Sassen, a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of "Cities in a World Economy."
Even in the U.S., she said, Chicago can still have a reputation as a somewhat staid heartland metropolis that lags behind coastal cities in terms of wider influence.
"The local people may not like it (protests), but the international audience may take it with a shrug and say, 'This is how it is nowadays when you allow freedom of expression,'" Sassen said.
If police handle the protests well, then it's a "feather in the cap," Sassen said, and Chicago would remain attractive. A brutal response could be a black mark, she said.
Tourism officials said they plan to arrange for groups of journalists from eight targeted countries to come to Chicago beforehand to cover the city.
And the city could get some positive coverage from such efforts, said scholar John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto.
"Typically, the news coverage begins with stories such as, there's a summit and it will be where? Why Chicago? What's Chicago. That's where Obama is from," Kirton said. "It really does attract 3,000 to 4,000 of the best journalists in the world. They have to get on the air, and they tend to do back-rub stories."
At the summit briefing, the city's cultural and civic establishment unveiled a smorgasbord of ancillary events aimed at polishing the city's image, from youth basketball tournaments and student video contests to entertainment deals and academic symposiums.
And organizers announced that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would co-chair the host committee for the summits, set for May 19-21 at McCormick Place. Former Sara Lee Chairman John Bryan, who led fundraising for the Art Institute's Modern Wing and for Millennium Park, is the other co-chairman.
Lori Healey, executive director of the host committee, again declined to disclose fundraising goals. She also played down the impact of protests when asked about a quote in the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday from Jerry Roper, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, who said he expects operators of tony stores on North Michigan Avenue to have 24-hour security for the summits.
"All the focus on negativity is unproductive and just not a good way to focus our energies at this point," said Healey, emphasizing the business community is a full partner in the events.
Later in the day, the chamber issued a statement containing conciliatory remarks from Roper, who didn't respond to interview requests.
Asked about Roper's initial comments, Emanuel said the city will provide adequate security and "people that are in our city will continue to be able to access what goes on on Michigan Avenue."
Chicago officials say they are well-prepared to handle demonstrations. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has pointed to the orderly reaction to an Occupy Chicago demonstration in October when a color-coded system was used to separate demonstrators who were willing to disperse from those who wished to be arrested as an act of civil disobedience.
The total bill for hosting the summits could be between $40 million and $65 million, but Healey said officials are still not ready to "get down to the nitty-gritty and the details."
The city and the host committee are seeking federal reimbursement that comes with hosting what the government has designated a National Special Security Event, Healey said, adding "nobody knows Washington better than Mayor Emanuel."
Reporters John Byrne and Kristen Mack contributed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun