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Baptists leave dollars as well as Word

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The Southern Baptist Conference is by far the largest convention in Salt Lake City so far this year.

It is expected to bring around 10,000 conventioneers, including both "Gospel Messengers," as voting delegates are called, and family members. The Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau says they will leave behind about $16.5 million in the Utah economy.But who gets those dollars in the forms of meal and souvenir sales seems to be a bit hit and miss.

While Cafe Pierpont reported Monday that it was "swamped" at lunch time - "hard to even keep up" - Capitol Cafe two blocks over had seen a smaller-than-usual crowd, despite the fact it usually does very brisk business from Salt Palace conventions, according to a staff member.

Jeri Cartwright of the bureau said some of the difference one convention to the next is type of cuisine, price and word of mouth within the convention. In some cases, restaurants offer coupons through the convention literature and there are "natural traffic patterns."

Part of the difference may be the nature of the convention and its related activities. Eighteen thousand delegates doesn't necessarily translate into 18,000 people who will rent hotel rooms and buy three meals a day downtown - although many of them will. Rick Davis, president of the bureau, said most of the Southern Baptists are double bunking, using somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 hotel rooms.

The Rev. Stewart Wine and his wife, Norma, arrived in Salt Lake Friday night for the Southern Baptist conference. The couple are from Independence, Mo., where he pastors the Beverly Hills Baptist Church. Sent by their church as voting delegates, they are spending the week with two families they used to have in their congregation who are now assigned to Hill Air Force Base.

"It's a way to save the church some money," the Rev. Wine said. "And we really like people, so we'd rather stay with families."

That's probably typical of quite a few of the Southern Baptists flocking to Salt Lake City this week. Some, especially larger, organized congregations, have sent groups to Utah early to help with preparation, Crossover evangelizing activities or to work with specific Wasatch Front Southern Baptist congregations. And some of them are staying with host families from local Southern Baptist churches, according to conference organizers.

Still, there's no question that Utah's economy is benefiting from the convention.

"Even if congregations are feeding them some meals, someone's buying more groceries," said Jeri Cartwright of the bureau. "The money's left here. And expenditures are quite high whenever you visit an area."

Hotel and motel costs are a very small part of the total expenditure, which is estimated at $915 for a four-day stay by the International Association of Convention Bureaus, Cartwright said.

Like Norma Wine, most of the out-of-town visitors are squeezing in some tourist sightseeing and spending time in the malls and souvenir shops.

Businesses in Crossroads Mall almost all reported Monday that they'd had large crowds browsing and buying. But three blocks away, several shop owners reported they hadn't seen any extra business from the convention.

Being close to the convention center isn't necessary for hotels and motels. Cartwright said many people are scattered around, depending on the amount they wanted to pay for a room and what their transportation options are. And hotels like the Marriott, right across from the Salt Palace, had no complaints, either. The Southern Baptists were described by everyone the Deseret News asked as very nice, friendly people.

Those are the same words that conventioneer after conventioneer used to describe the Utahns with whom they'd come in contact.

"Absolutely gracious," said Donna Parker, a Reno-area Southern Baptist who was shopping in a very crowded Crossroads Mall on Monday during a break from the pre-convention activities.

One thing that didn't get very high marks from the visiting Southern Baptists was the road construction not only on I-15 but throughout the downtown area where light rail is being installed.

"Where'd you have to park?" asked a woman greeting her friend outside the convention center.

"In Colorado," was the wry reply.

Cartwright said the convention was booked by the bureau in June 1991. "For something this large, you have to schedule years in advance," said Cartwright.

The bureau emphasizes that there's no reason for locals to avoid downtown businesses assuming they'll be crowded with a convention of this size.

"We believe Salt Lake has the capacity to handle business from both a large convention and locals," Davis said.