By andy Zieminski
ANNAPOLIS – Annapolis residents and officials largely shrugged Tuesday at the news their city could play host next week to a Mideast peace conference.
“I don’t think the average person is going to care,” said Rob Banwell, manager of Comfort One Shoes on Market Street. “If they don’t have it here, they’d have it in D.C.”
The State Department said Tuesday that almost 50 countries or international agencies had been invited to the conference next Tuesday at the U.S. Naval Academy. President Bush is scheduled to deliver remarks to a pre-conference dinner in Washington Monday and be in Annapolis Tuesday to kick off the conference.
Besides the president, at least 100 dignitaries and their staff, as well as a potential flood of media, are expected to attend the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Talks are only scheduled to be in Annapolis for one day before returning to Washington.
City spokesman Ray Weaver said Annapolis is honored to be chosen as the site for the talks, but that the Naval Academy and the State Department are going to manage the event.
“We’re the hosts. That’s about it,” Weaver said. “The real venue is the Naval Academy.”
Local law enforcement agencies are going to offer security and traffic support to the Secret Service and the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, but the exact role of the locals is still unclear, Weaver said.
Banwell, who was born and raised in Annapolis, said his only concern is if masses of protesters come to town and clog the streets.
Weaver did not know whether the meeting would stop local traffic, but he compared it to a Naval Academy graduation, because events will be primarily confined to academy facilities.
The State Department said it invited Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the G-8, the Arab League and other “key international actors” to the meetings in Annapolis and then in Washington.
While the meeting represents a key diplomatic effort to end decades of conflict in the Mideast, local residents and business owners predicted the influx of diplomats and journalists will have little effect on them.
Annapolis resident Jeff Lucente was unperturbed by the prospect of peace talks in town.
“It’s the content of the discussion more than the place” that is important, he said while waiting for a friend near the City Dock.
Lucente added, “I don’t know why they’d bring it here and not Camp David,” the presidential retreat in Frederick County where President Carter brokered peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
Clare Vanderbeek, executive director of the Annapolis Business Association, believes the talks could be good for local businesses.
“The peace talks offer Annapolis and its businesses an opportunity to showcase their hospitality,” she said.
The “astronomical” number of reporters Vanderbeek thinks could converge on Annapolis will give local hotels a big boost.
“Right after Thanksgiving is normally the slowest week of the year,” she said.
But Pamela Watson, who owns a clothing store on Maryland Avenue, said that downtown shopping would probably go on as usual since the peace talks are expected to last only one day in Annapolis.
“I don’t think it’ll be bad,” Watson said. “It’ll be just one more distraction.”
-30- CNS 11-20-07