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Annapolis is a front-runner among a dozen cities competing to land aprestigious Fortune 500 forum, the director of the Fortune magazine event said yesterday.

The annual forum, which has attracted such speakers as President George Bush, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, would fill the historic city with several hundred Fortune 500 company presidents and CEOs and pump thousands of dollars into the economy over three days.

John S. Needham, director of Fortune Enterprises, the magazine's events department, visited Annapolis for the first time last week. Hetoured potential meeting sites and accommodations, meeting with city, state and tourism industry officials.

"I was totally impressed by Annapolis," Needham said in a phone interview from New York City. "It's one of the front-runners."

Needham said Fortune Enterprises is considering about a dozen cities, some of which his staff will visit in the next few weeks.

"We're looking for a place that has some interesting history, a place where people will enjoy going to," with historic and unique meeting places, he said.

Organizers of the October or November forum expect it to bring together executives and stimulate new thinking on the most pressing economic, technological, political and competitive issues facing business.

Herman Schieke, executive director of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau, estimated that each of the expected 300 to 335 participants would spend about $200 a day. Needham also has asked for 75 limousines to transport forum participants.

In addition to the economic benefits to local hotels, restaurants, shops and limousine companies, the forum could lead to future conferences sponsored by any of the participating companies, Schieke said.

"The city is fast becoming a center for conferences, seminars and symposiums," said Thomas Roskelly, city director of public information and tourism. "Only relatively recently did we have the hotels to handle these things."

City and tourism officials said they could work out the logistics of accommodating the large group, although no single downtown hotel can house all of the expected attendees. The city successfully played host to 750 participants of the Southern Legislative Conference about three years ago, Roskelly said.

Schieke was among a group that showed Needham sites for dinners and meetings, including the William Paca Gardens, the State House and the Naval Academy. Noting Needham's reaction to the historic sites, Schieke said, "It was fun to see someone goggle-eyed."

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