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Schwarzenegger Brings New Buzz to the Capital

The governor-elect is putting Sacramento on the tourism map. A hotelier says, 'You just can't buy this kind of attention.'

October 20, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Ever since Arnold Schwarzenegger made top of the heap in this laid-back government city, European tour operators have suddenly begun calling about "sightseeing" packages for busloads of fans from Britain and Germany. Out-of-town TV stations are suddenly interested in opening Capitol bureaus. Municipal bean counters are suddenly concerned about the cost of ancillary crowd control for their new VIP.

In the fancier neighborhoods, Arnold-worthy homes -- with Arnold-size price tags -- are suddenly the source of proud buzz and not-in-my-backyard furor. Limousine companies are bolstering their fleets, despite claims that the swearing-in will be low key.

The other day, Randy Paragary, who owns 10 local restaurants, recited -- down to the last side dish -- what Schwarzenegger had ordered the last time he entered Paragary's Esquire Grill -- weeks ago now. Eerily, it was the same meal that outgoing Gov. Gray Davis regularly ordered up to his desk at lunchtime. (Salmon, but Schwarzenegger "passed on the potatoes -- he's a healthy guy.")

Big shots come and big shots go here, but there are stars and then there are stars. As the clock ticks toward a political transition unprecedented in history and wattage, this leafy bastion of bureaucracy and agriculture is buzzing like Bel-Air before the Oscars -- never mind that Schwarzenegger described it on CNN's "Larry King Live" as (ouch!) a "quaint little town."

"There is an energy that we haven't seen in a long, long time," said Steve Hammond, president and chief executive of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has launched a search for an Arnold impersonator to wander around intoning, "I ahm gooing to Sahk-ra-mento!" at an upcoming London tourism show.

Not that the energy is all positive. Though the Sacramento region tilts conservative Republican, the city itself tends toward pro-labor Democrats. "Those of us who laughed at Jesse Ventura in Minnesota are now stuck with it ourselves," said Karolyn Simon, a 62-year-old Democrat and former neighbor of Ronald Reagan during Reagan's tenure as governor.

When one of her neighbors in the stately "Fabulous Forties" district publicly offered to sell his Normandy-style house to Schwarzenegger for a little less than $3 million -- about twice the average price for homes on that block -- fliers began circulating, demanding that there be "No Governor's Mansion in East Sacramento."

But for most, the new administration represents not only new business and a fresh shot at political detente, but a super-sized spotlight that might -- at long last -- shine a little on this least-celebrated of California destinations.

"You just can't buy this kind of attention," said Jerry Westenhaver, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, a nonunion hotel that, for years now, has been shunned by many in the pro-labor Davis administration. "Wherever he goes, he draws crowds."

Sacramento's close-up has been a long time coming. Though the state capital is the hub of a metropolitan area encompassing close to 2 million people, modern Californians have tended to view it as a backwater between San Francisco and the ski slopes of the Sierra Nevada -- a dusty, farm-y pit stop on the way to someplace else.

It is "The Big Easy Chair." It is "Sack-tomato." It is "Just a bladder from Tahoe," as one reader suggested in 1995 when a Sacramento Bee columnist solicited ideas for a city slogan. Other suggestions included "Very little inbreeding," "Think of it this way -- you could be in Stockton" and "Not too far to go now."

Marketing campaigns have had but modest effects. When the word "international" was inserted into the name of the airport some years ago, one local politician worried that people would mock it as hyperbole, considering Sacramento's near-total lack of nonstop international flights. (He was right.)

No matter that it has the Sacramento Kings, Old California pedigrees, tree-lined streets, four actual seasons, a low cost of living and a style that is so unpretentious that visitors routinely describe it as "Midwestern."

"Sacramento in the past has had somewhat of an inferiority complex," said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which represents 800 property owners and businesses in the city's central business district.

"But I think, well, I think this governor is going to bring us a celebrity cachet."

So do the city's tourism boosters. Fifteen million visitors a year visit Sacramento, injecting about $1.4 billion into the local economy, but the numbers pale next to those of, say, San Francisco, where the same number of visitors, roughly, spends about four times as much money, or Los Angeles, where nearly 25 million tourists spend about $13.6 billion a year.

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