|By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta
Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Aug. 11, 2006--Meeting planners, the people who decide whether big-money conventions will come to Atlanta, have made more complaints about panhandlers downtown in the last year than in the past -- despite a city law passed in 2005 to curb panhandling, the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau said Thursday.
Planners, in interviews with the ACVB's customer advisory board, said the city has improved drastically in its destination appeal but that begging on the streets remains a problem.
The revelation comes less than a month after a look at panhandling arrests showed the number actually dropped after the law went into effect in August 2005, restricting "commercial solicitation" in the city's heart and at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
Statistics recently provided to the Journal-Constitution in response to an open records request indicated that Atlanta police made 1,338 panhandling arrests from September 2004 through May 2005. That compares with 630 arrests during the same September-through-May period a year later.
"The new ordinance is not being enforced," said ACVB President Spurgeon Richardson. "It's that simple."
This is especially worrisome to the bureau because 2006 has been a good year for conventions. Attendance at meetings is up, and several big conventions slated for New Orleans moved to Georgia's capital after Hurricane Katrina.
That has the city experiencing its best hotel occupancy rates since the 1996 Olympic Games, when the rate reached 67.3 percent, according to PKF Consulting, which studies the hotel industry.
Atlanta is on track to end 2006 with an occupancy rate of 67.6 percent.
Any effort to roll out the red carpet could be undone if visitors are accosted by beggars, said ACVB board Chairman Michael Robison.
Panhandling "destroys the whole experience," he said.
ACVB leaders said they have met with Atlanta Police Richard Pennington and have been told he is committed to putting more foot patrols on the street to address the problem. But he also has said he needs more measurable evidence of the problem.
To that end, Georgia State University marketing students, under ACVB guidance, will talk to conventioneers, meeting planners and downtown workers this fall to gauge the extent of the panhandling problem.
"The key really is visitor perception on this issue," said Ken Bernhardt, a member of the ACVB board and a Georgia State marketing professor.
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