A highly NOBLE endeavor for convention hopefuls

May 22, 2009
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Convention and Visitors Bureau President Doug Small felt the site visit his group hosted last month for the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives went well.

He said members of the organization's advance team freely offered compliments about the city, DeVos Place and the people they met on their three-day April visit, which included a trip to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park and a tour of local black churches.

"The team was extremely complimentary about our people. They were very impressed," said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell.

The bureau is trying to convince NOBLE to hold its annual training conference and exhibition here in July 2014. The location decision is expected to be made this week by the NOBLE board of directors. About 2,000 delegates attend the organization's yearly meeting. Should NOBLE come here, it would mean 5,000 room nights for hotel operators and a local economic impact of roughly $3.8 million. But to attract those delegates and earn that economic gain, the city has to beat out Philadelphia, a world-renowned destination full of historic sites and major attractions.

The bureau considers the NOBLE convention a key meeting for the city, similar to the magnitude of hosting the Religious Conference Management Association in January, as the CVB is trying to extend its presence in the multicultural meeting market — just like it did earlier for the religious and hobby markets, which turned out to be two of the bureau's biggest niche successes. And the RCMA meeting provided the bureau with a positive push to go after the NOBLE conference.

"You're always looking for markets that you feel have a real reason to be here. We knew the multicultural market, especially after the American-Hispanic meetings market, were two areas that we probably should be spending more attention on. They're growing, and we've not aggressively pursued them in the past," said Small.

"So we started some dialogue between us and (DeVos Place Assistant General Manager) Eddie (Tadlock) and the convention center on how do we do that. Then along comes RCMA, and the demographics of that group are very diversified, not just in religion but also in race. We then said there is an opportunity here for us to really make an impact in the African-American meetings market," he added.

While NOBLE would qualify as the largest African-American group to ever meet at the convention center, it isn't the only such organization the bureau is pursuing. Small said his staff has already approached the Coalition of Black Meeting Planners, not as large a group as NOBLE but also a high-profile national organization.

"We think we will at least able to get one of their smaller meetings to start," he said.

Earnest McCowen Jr., vice president of the Region IV chapter of NOBLE, said he saw Grand Rapids as a growing and diverse city on his visit here, and he wants the organization to become more involved in the city, should it be chosen as the conference site.

"We have training programs that we offer for law enforcement for the community. We partner with some of the insurance companies for safety programs. So we bring a lot. And the key is, when we leave, we want the initiatives to stay here to help make Grand Rapids a better place," said McCowen, who lives in Mt. Orab, Ohio, about 35 miles east of Cincinnati.

"(Grand Rapids) is an ideal city. This is my second time I've been here. It's what NOBLE looks for," he said. 

McCowen said NOBLE delegates spend about 10 hours of every meeting day working on their training and safety programs. Then comes networking and socializing. He said the city and its nearby suburbs are well-suited for the latter. On the final day of the conference, NOBLE holds a street march and memorial service. The march represents the social responsibility the organization collectively holds.

"NOBLE endeavors to pick an area that may have issues — whether it's economically, socially or demographically. There could be challenges with relationships with the police where we want to march and espouse the values of NOBLE. It culminates in a memorial service at a local facility, maybe a church or a hall, with a keynote speaker," said Ralph Godbee Jr., president and CEO of the Michigan NOBLE chapter and retired assistant chief of the Detroit Police Department.

"It's really uplifting. It's really an impacting view for a community to see high-ranking executives that are classically what people wouldn't think an executive would look like — namely, men and women of color of high ranks from departments across the country. The march serves as an inspiration for minority groups and under-privileged people, and as a powerful incentive for young people," said Godbee, who added that NOBLE tries to level the playing field for everybody.

Small said landing NOBLE and CBLP would show the meeting industry that the city can successfully compete for national groups and also prove to the country that Grand Rapids embraces diversity.

CVB Executive Vice President George Helmstead said everyone pitched in to make the NOBLE advance team feel welcome during their visit.

"This was beyond a local effort. It was a local, regional and state effort," he said. "If we happen to book this, it will be a prestigious entry into the multicultural market."

NOBLE, which has its headquarters in Alexandria, Va., was founded in 1976. Of the group's 60 original founders, two are from Michigan: Frank Blount of the Detroit Police Department and Willie Howell of the Muskegon Heights PD. Detroit is the only Michigan city to have hosted a NOBLE convention, in 1979 and 1996. Philadelphia hosted the conference in 1991.

The NOBLE board of directors is expected to decide this week whether it will meet here in 2014 or in Philadelphia. Tadlock told the Business Journal he feels Grand Rapids will win because the group's 2013 meeting is set for Pittsburgh, and he doesn't think attendees will want to return to the same region two years in a row.

"We feel confident that we can win this conference," said Small. "But even if we don't, we still want to chat with these people about where we need to go to achieve it."

National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives

Who: Joseph McMillan, national president; Jessie Lee, executive director

What: An organization of high-ranking, current and retired African-American law enforcement officials. Offers training in many aspects of policing, along with fellowship, internship, professional development and community safety programs.

Its motto is: “The Conscience of Law Enforcement.”

When: Founded in September 1976 during a three-day symposium to address crime in low-income urban areas across the country. The 60 founders represented 24 states and 55 cities.

Where: National headquarters in Alexandria, Va. Forty-seven chapters in six U.S. regions with one region in the Caribbean. Michigan is in Region IV.

Why: Convention and Visitors Bureau is competing with Philadelphia for the NOBLE annual training conference and exhibition in 2014. The meeting would bring 2,000 delegates to the city and add $3.8 million to the local economy.

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