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Arizona Tourism Suffers From King Holiday Cancellation

WHEN former Governor Evan Mecham canceled the Martin Luther King holiday in 1987, he did more than start a firestorm of criticism that ultimately led to his impeachment. His act also has caused the Arizona to lose more than $25 million in tourism and convention revenues. Vic Heller, director of Arizona's office of tourism, said the revocation of the holiday has led to the loss of a ``segment of business extremely sensitive to the Martin Luther King holiday, business that revolves around social, minority, union, educational, religious, and fraternal groups. We lump those all together and refer to them as SMUERF business.''

Ironically, Mr. Heller and his colleagues used to count on that segment to fill up the state's hotels during months when bigger, more affluent groups stay away from Arizona.

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``Oftentimes these are groups looking where to do a convention toward the close of the school year and into the summer. This segment has been good for Arizona because that has been the down season for Phoenix and Tucson. Those cities become less than an attractive destination because of the heat here,'' he says.

The `SMUERF' groups are cost-conscious and often want to meet at the end of the school year. They are also ``particularly sensitive to [civil rights issues],'' Heller says.``Now we have to forget about that segment of the market because they're just not considering us.''

Before leaving office, former Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D) established by executive order the holiday honoring the late civil rights leader. Mr. Mecham, a conservative Republican, revoked the order when he took office as governor in 1987.

Since then, Attorney General Robert Corbin has ruled that the Legislature should decide on the issue, since it affects state expenditures by giving a day off to state employees. When the cancellation of the holiday was publicized, organizations already booked for 1988 and 1989 conventions called off their trips to a state heavily dependent on tourist dollars.

The first group to cancel was the Democratic National Committee (DNC), scheduled to meet in Tucson, Ariz. That involved only 120 people, resulting in a loss of $22,000 for the host hotel.

But other groups, such as the western region of the Urban League,the Radio-TV News Directors Association, the Council on Social Work Education, the Unitarian-Universalist Association, the National Intramural Recreational Sports Association, and Planned Parenthood, followed the DNC's lead.

When tourist officials got around to adding up the deficits, they learned that in 1988 and 1989 they had lost 48 conventions, over 42,000 attendees, and more than $25 million. Those were direct losses, meaning that organizations' officials canceled already established arrangements for holding conventions in the state.

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But there are other, more subtle penalties involved. David Radcliffe, president of the Phoenix & Valley of the Sun Convention & Visitors Bureau says, ``It doesn't do us any good to put an effort into soliciting accounts that we know take exception to the fact that the holiday issue is not resolved. It's crazy for us to spend time trying to chase that business.'' Mr. Radcliffe's group is a sales and marketing organization which tries to persuade large organizations and businesses to hold conventions in the Phoenix area.

Heller, state tourism director, believes the only way to solve the problem is to reestablish the holiday. ``As long as the matter is not resolved, it always raises the issue in people's minds.''

But the resolution won't come soon. The Legislature, dominated by conservatives, is reluctant to establish a holiday honoring the Rev. Mr. King.

Heller says it's ``because their constituents don't believe King deserves a holiday. Some of his actions seemed, to them, to be ethically or morally questionable.''

Until the legislature makes up its mind, tourism losses will be substantial.

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