The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Georgia tourism and convention boosters are scrambling to prevent the state from suffering the same economic impacts that Arizona felt last year after enacting the nation’s toughest immigration enforcement law.
As Gov. Nathan Deal prepares to sign into law a similar immigration measure, House Bill 87, tourism officials here are employing a series of strategies. They’re pointing out the differences between Arizona’s law and the Georgia legislation, highlighting Atlanta’s civil rights history and emphasizing how cancellations could hurt tens of thousands of metro area workers.
Their biggest concern is the series of cancellations that struck Arizona soon after Gov. Jan. Brewer signed that state’s hotly contested law.
In all, the Grand Canyon State has lost about 40 conventions amid economic boycotts inspired by its crackdown on illegal immigration, according to the Arizona Hotel & Lodging Association. One estimate says the lost bookings have cost Arizona $141 million.
Partly patterned after Arizona’s law, HB 87 is expected to be signed by Deal this week. The measure would empower police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects. It would also punish people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants in Georgia.
HB 87’s supporters say Georgia needs to take action because illegal immigrants are burdening taxpayer-funded resources here. Critics say the legislation is unconstitutional and will scare away tourists and conventioneers.
Last month, the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau went on record against HB 87. Bureau officials mentioned Arizona’s experience when they spoke out about what the measure could do to the region’s $10 billion tourism industry. The bureau’s executive committee unanimously passed a resolution saying HB 87 could “tarnish Atlanta’s reputation as one of America’s most welcoming cities.”
Ed Walls, general manager of the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel, voted for the resolution. About 30 percent of his hotel’s business comes from conventions, he said.
“Our concern is really the perception of our customers,” said Walls, vice chairman of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association. “In some cases, groups will cancel based on principle.”
A study released in November by the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group that opposes Arizona’s immigration law, estimates that canceled conventions have cost Arizona a total of $141 million in direct spending, along with 2,761 jobs and $9.4 million in tax revenue.
For example, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., a black fraternity, moved its convention from Phoenix to Las Vegas last year. The fraternity said Arizona’s law could “put the civil rights and the very dignity of our members at risk during their stay in Phoenix.” The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said 1,489 people attended the event, creating a $1.1 million economic impact for Las Vegas.
Walls and other bureau officials are now working to prevent such cancellations in Atlanta. He said the region’s tourism boosters can remind conventioneers that Atlanta is the cradle of the civil rights movement. Walls said he also stands ready to point out the differences between Arizona’s law and HB 87, including when police would be able to question suspects about their immigration status under the Georgia legislation.
A lot is at stake. The hospitality industry is the fourth-largest employer in the Atlanta region with about 223,000 jobs, the bureau says.
“Folks that cancel are not hurting just the state of Georgia,” Walls said. “They are hurting an awful lot of people that have jobs in the state of Georgia.”
No Atlanta conventions have been canceled, though some planners have called to inquire about HB 87, said Pattsie Rand, sales and marketing director for the Georgia World Congress Center. Rand also confirmed that a convention Arizona lost amid the boycotts last year remains on the schedule for Atlanta.
The National Minority Supplier Development Council is expecting about 6,000 people to attend its annual conference at the GWCC this fall, Rand said. Last year, the council moved its conference from Phoenix to Miami Beach, saying Arizona’s new law was “inconsistent with the ideals and principles” of the group. Miami Beach convention officials put its economic impact at $6.9 million.
Asked about the tourism industry’s concerns, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said “promoting legal immigration and assuring that federal laws are followed is the best way to protect the human rights of everyone in our state.”
One organization has already announced it will cancel plans to hold its national conference in Atlanta this year unless Deal vetoes the bill. The U.S. Human Rights Network, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization, said more than 600 people are expected to attend its three-day event.
“The last thing that Georgia needs in these difficult economic times is to follow Arizona’s path and become a national pariah,” Ajamu Baraka, the network’s executive director, said in a prepared statement last week.
The author of HB 87 — Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City — said the network’s actions are “tantamount to economic extortion.”
“At the end of the day, we have to take strong action to protect our taxpaying citizens,” he said. “Enforcing the rule of law and jealously guarding our taxpayer resources is the right side to be on.”