Chicago tries to change image for Olympic bid

CHICAGO As the city prepares to make public a detailed explanation of its bid for the 2016 Olympic Games on Tuesday, organizers say such scenes help illustrate that Chicago is a global city with the cachet to host the most global sporting event of all.

But those same tourists reveal something else: the stubborn perception that, long since the stockyards, steel mills and gangsters like Al Capone disappeared, Chicago remains a gritty city of belching smokestacks and dangerous streets.

"I thought it would be more industrial than it is," said Carol Morrison, of Edinburgh, Scotland.

"They think it's a very criminal city," Teresa Speller, said of her countrymen in the Netherlands.

Those supporting Chicago's Olympic bid know that changing the city's image among outsiders - particularly among foreigners - is crucial if they are to convince the International Olympic Committee to pick Chicago.

"The great assets of Chicago have to be made known to the world," said Patrick Ryan, leader of the city's 2016 organizing committee.

He said most international travelers do not venture past the east or west coasts, so they're far more familiar with cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Foreign visitors to Chicago say their friends back home simply don't think of the Lake Michigan city as a vacation destination.

What they know about Chicago often comes from movies and television shows. Some, like "The Untouchables," are outdated and others, like "The Fugitive" and "ER," often paint the city as a somewhat ominous if not downright violent place.

And more recent events that made international headlines - including the trial of aging mobsters and the videotaped beating of a bartender by an off-duty police officer - have only fueled the stereotypical image of Chicago.

"Al Capone, crime, grit," Nancy Caldwell, a teacher in Great Britain, said on a visit to Millennium Park this month. "Generally most Brits see it like that."

Lost in all this, say Ryan and others, is the natural beauty of a city on the shores of one of the nation's largest lakes, the gleaming skyscrapers, beautiful parks, museums and other cultural attractions.

"The gap between the reputation and the reality of Chicago today is the greatest for any major city in the world," said Marshall Bouton, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Ryan said the challenge facing Olympic bid committee is to make Chicago a lot more familiar to those in far-off countries - especially members of the IOC.

The IOC will select a host city in October 2009. Besides Chicago, Madrid, Spain; Tokyo; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Prague, Czech Republic; Doha, Qatar, and Baku are bidding to host the 2016 Summer Games.

"We have a significant number of global companies," Ryan said. "These are people who travel the world and they're going to be speaking out on behalf of Chicago."

The city already had begun marketing itself internationally. In recent years, for example, the Illinois Bureau of Tourism brought in food writers from overseas in an effort to promote the city's top restaurants. And chefs such as Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless have been profiled in publications around the world.

"Three, four years ago it was all Chicago deep dish pizza," said Jan Kostner, the bureau's deputy director. "But fine dining has really caught on and today there is a huge awareness of that."

In 2005, Time magazine named Mayor Richard Daley one of the nation's top five big-city mayors. That year, a Boston Globe correspondent called Millennium Park "the best urban public park I've ever seen, anywhere, and that includes some famed ones in places like Rotterdam and Paris."

The next year, The Economist published a flattering story about Chicago's "revival." After years of industrial decline, fleeing companies and racial tensions, Chicago was, the magazine wrote "a city buzzing with life, humming with prosperity, sparking with new buildings, new sculptures, new parks and generally exuding vitality."

Still, there is concern that it's not enough, that the city should be doing much more - and spending a lot more.

Together, the budgets of the city's convention bureau and the city's tourism office are less than $19 million, with another $1 million spent by the Illinois Bureau of Tourism to market the city and state overseas.

By comparison, the budget for New York's marketing and tourism organization, NYC & Company, is $40 million. The budget for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc. in Florida is $64 million and the budget for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is a whopping $211 million.

A study organized by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released in October said Chicago is being dramatically outspent overseas by other cities, including New York, which spends $15 million "on international tourism promotion alone."

NYC & Company wouldn't comment on how much it spends overseas, but said it opened nine new offices around the world last year, bringing the total to 16 - or 13 more than Illinois.

Even so, Kostner said the number of international visitors to Illinois climbed more than 8 percent last year.

And when they come?

"It is much more visually stunning than I was expecting," Morrison said. "I wasn't really prepared for the reality."

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