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A City Reborn Is Ready for Close-Up

An international gathering will give a place once known as a magnet for rowdy spring-breakers a chance to show off its makeover.

June 05, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The raunchy seaside bar that local lore says pioneered an American institution, the wet T-shirt contest, is long gone, torn down for a five-star resort scheduled to open this year.

Likewise, the throngs of vacationing, beer-chugging collegians have passed into history, though memories of this South Florida locale as the mythic spring-break destination -- a.k.a. "Fort Liquordale" -- linger. It was a 1960 Hollywood movie that gave this place another alluring nickname that each March and April helped bring in armies of thirsty, hormone-engorged young adults: "Where the Boys Are."

For three days beginning today, thousands of people of a very different sort will visit this city, which is usually eclipsed by the cosmopolitan chic and glitz of Miami, its neighbor 22 miles to the south. The Organization of American States is holding its annual General Assembly here, providing Fort Lauderdale with an unaccustomed moment in the international spotlight and an opportunity to display its new face.

Such an international meeting, plus the media coverage that will surround it, "is what we have been preparing for for 20 years," said Nicki E. Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. "From a historic perspective, from the potential impact for our community, this is the preeminent event."

An estimated 3,000 diplomats, delegates, guests, observers and journalists are expected at the OAS' highest decision-making forum, which hasn't met in the United States since 1974. On Monday, President Bush will fly in to address foreign ministers from 34 nations (every country in the Americas except Cuba) and is expected to speak about extending the benefits of democracy in the hemisphere.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be the host of the gathering at the Broward County Convention Center.

Since Nov. 26, law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service and Secret Service, have been working to ensure that the disruptions that marred international gatherings in Seattle, Miami and elsewhere do not occur here.

"There is an extensive plan in place to satisfy all contingencies," said Sgt. Andy Pallen, Fort Lauderdale police spokesman.

On Thursday, a federal judge blocked enforcement of a new local law that would have barred protesters from carrying large posters, water balloons and other items; he said the ordinance was too strict. City officials said their security blueprint would be unaffected.

The meeting's venue is inside the perimeter of Port Everglades, where access has been severely limited since Sept. 11.

The immediate boost to the local economy from the meeting could total $35 million. But Mayor Jim Naugle also has his eye on the long-term effects. Hundreds of reporters from foreign and domestic media will be exposed to the city, said the mayor. So will decision-makers with the means to make major investments.

"What we really have to offer is a beautiful quality of life, a place where you can live, visit or conduct business," said Naugle, 50.

Though Miami loudly lays claim to being the "Gateway to the Americas," more than 250 companies from Latin American and other foreign countries have set up operations in Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere in Broward County, said Lisa Nason, director of corporation communications for Enterprise Florida Inc., a public-private partnership for economic development.

"If you can think of it, from turbines to finances, from Europe to the Far East, it's there [in the Fort Lauderdale area]," Nason said in a telephone interview. Since the mid-'90s, she said, foreign investors have increasingly treated South Florida as an integrated region for their operations, to the benefit of Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach and other cities. Scores of U.S. companies have also made the Fort Lauderdale area their jumping-off platform for Latin America.

Though sunshine and beaches remain lures, the economy of Fort Lauderdale and surrounding Broward County has diversified enough so that this year, for the first time, tourism is no longer the lead local industry in terms of dollar value. That spot has been claimed by the marine industry, which countywide employs 109,000 people and has an $8.8-billion impact on the economy, the mayor said.

"We have established ourselves as a place in the world where you can buy a boat, get it worked on and get it crewed," Naugle said. The annual Fort Lauderdale boat show, an eyepopping assembly of yachts and super-yachts, has become the largest event in Florida in terms of the direct business that it generates, he said.

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