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Convention activity remains steady despite reputation damage following Ferguson

Kitty Ratcliffe, President, St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission

Convention and visitor business in the St. Louis region appears to have bounced back following a rough period after last year's violence in Ferguson.

Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the  St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, tells St. Louis Public Radio the six months after the death of Michael Brown were tough, prompting the organization to take an open approach to dealing with client concerns. That included tours of Ferguson and focus groups in key markets St. Louis pulls from for vacationers such as Indianapolis and Memphis.

But there is no doubt the unrest hurt the region's reputation.

"Every city in the country has issues, urban issues that they have to address. But when those come out and St. Louis is mentioned the a-ha lightbulb goes off and they say ah, Ferguson. That's right," Ratcliffe says.

Attracting business has become a little harder, but convention and visitor activity is at the same level as the year before Michael Brown's death.

It is too early for specific numbers, but the commission insists that it didn’t  lose any major business because of Ferguson.

The Memphis-based Church of God in Christ is one organization that considered moving its big convention elsewhere, but ended up doubling-down on St. Louis.

In a statement emailed to St. Louis Public Radio, the organization does not mention Ferguson directly, but says "the hospitality that we have received while here has been great."

It's one of the largest gatherings on the city's annual convention calendar, bringing more than 30,000 people. The church adds it has pumped nearly $150 million into the region's economy over the past five years.

Charles E. Blake, Bishop, Church of God in Christ
Charles E. Blake, Bishop, Church of God in Christ

The organization has signed a deal to keep its convention in St. Louis through 2019. It's a decision that reflects the church's change of opinion about the region in a matter of months. Late last year, Bishop Charles E. Blake, Sr. wrote Governor Jay Nixon outlining concerns in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting.

"An understanding of your plans to ensure justice is achieved and to make needed systemic changes will be helpful in our deliberations," Blake told Missouri's governor in the November 2014 letter.

Much of Nixon's overall response to Ferguson rests with a special commission he appointed to examine the issues last summer's violence brought to the forefront. The panel is due to submit a report next month.

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