Locals eager to play hosts

The Baltimore Sun

The date is finally set, and the invitations to guests of next week's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis have been sent. And in the host city for Tuesday's talks, locals are looking to find even the smallest ways to take part.

The city is expected to have a very limited role in the international event, but the local government and businesses are relishing the chance to welcome foreign diplomats and hundreds of media representatives - even if that means only lining the streets with American flags, putting out "peace" cookies for hotel guests or even renaming a sandwich for a dignitary.

"On a global stage, this is big stuff," Laura Strachan, 49, an Annapolis resident, said last night as she walked her dog along City Dock. "It will probably cause parking and traffic problems. But it will be worth it."

As weeks passed and city officials were unsure of when or how long the conference would take place, city spokesman Ray Weaver contacted the State Department about a week ago on behalf of Mayor Ellen O. Moyer in hopes of holding a reception for the foreign and American diplomats. They declined.

So without a proper forum to greet the visitors, the city is hanging U.S. flags throughout downtown, and Moyer issued a proclamation yesterday welcoming the dignitaries.

"We're hoping that the [peace] dialogue opens here," said city spokesman Ray Weaver. "We would just be honored if it started here. It would be wonderful for all of us."

Annapolis is used to playing host, as far back as when it was the nation's capital. George Washington resigned his military commission in the city in 1783, and the Treaty of Paris was signed there in 1784.

Crowds an issue

These days, Navy football games draw 40,000 fans, and the president attends academy graduation every four years. Crowd management is an issue regardless of who's in town, said Paul Gibbs, a retired Annapolis police officer who still works with the department to coordinate special events.

"This city isn't made for big events, but it's part of what we do here," said Gibbs. "Even though this came up very quickly, everybody throws it together and there's a real spirit of cooperation."

With so much commotion on campus next week, the Naval Academy has decided to start classes earlier on Tuesday morning and restrict other movements on and off the Yard.

One midshipman who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter wondered how one day of talks could affect Army-Navy Week. Known for high-profile, middle-of-the-night hijinks, the week of activities will lead up to the Dec. 1 football game in Baltimore between Navy and West Point.

Naval Academy officials declined to comment on the peace conference, referring all calls to the State Department. The picturesque campus and its front gates, however, are likely to be a gathering point for protesters.

So far, only one group, the pro-Israel organization Shalom International, has requested a permit to hold a rally downtown. Robert P. Kunst, president of Shalom International, said the group is opposed to the United States and Israel engaging in talks with Arab leaders.

"In all my years of activism, I've never seen something so dangerous," said Kunst, who expects "hundreds" of protesters. "These people are committed to our destruction."

Dove-shaped cookies

Some businesses were trying to find ways to appeal to the week's guests. While the conference is under way, guests staying at the 217-room Loews Annapolis Hotel on West Street will receive dove-shaped sugar cookies with white icing. The lyrics from John Lennon's "Imagine" will be printed on a keepsake card that will be displayed with the cookie.

"We're bringing a little bit of the flavor of the talks to our guests in the hotel, and we wanted to keep it lighthearted and nonpolitical," said Ellen Gale, director of public relations for Loews Hotels.

Hotel stay canceled

The president's Office of Travel and the Office of the Secretary of State have canceled reservations at the Westin Annapolis because the conference will be held only one day, said Sharon McKennon, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. But at least one major news network is among the media and dignitaries who still have reservations there, she said.

Ted Levitt, owner of Chick & Ruth's Delly, which features sandwiches named after famous diners, said he has no plans to lure in world leaders with the promise of a signature sandwich. But that could change if someone makes a surprise visit.

"We'll see," he said.

George Wireman has a message for Annapolitans next week when the high-profile figures stream into town: Play it cool.

Wireman, 87, is the town historian for Thurmont, the tiny community near the Camp David presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains. He's gone to church with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and rubbed elbows with media figures Walter Cronkite and Helen Thomas.

"Don't make a big deal out of it," Wireman said. "I think they should let these people that are having their conferences go about their business. This is all a part of democracy. And yet there's a lot of people - they like to be heard and seen. I don't go for that."

The biggest commotion Wireman could recall was in 2000, when flags were locally banned to ease political tensions during Middle East peace talks. Residents balked, instead proudly displaying their flags on front porches and car antennas.

"We're very patriotic here in Thurmont, and we don't like anybody messing with our patriotism," Wireman said.

There was even less fuss in Talbot County during the 1998 Middle East peace talks at Wye River, said Shirlee L. Callahan, an assistant town clerk for Queenstown, the nearest municipality.

"They had the fire department right outside the main gate - they were there constantly," she said. "That's about it."

'Thrilling' concept

Sandra Jenkins, owner of the Randall House bed and breakfast near the Naval Academy, which was already booked for next week in advance of the conference's announcement, called the idea of hashing out weighty issues such as Middle East peace just down the street from where she lives "thrilling."

"This is Annapolis," said Jenkins, 52. "Things happen here all the time. It's just part of the beauty of living down here."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Bradley Olson contributed to this article.

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