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Menino makes pitch for business

Incentives for customers; some merchants skeptical

With businesses howling about broken promises of a convention bonanza, Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday tried to lure people back into a deserted city, announcing three days of free parking and public concerts, as well as discounts at restaurants, attractions, and theaters to cap off convention week in Boston.

Menino said the discounts tomorrow and this weekend -- whose costs are being absorbed by the businesses offering them -- are intended as a "thank you present" to Boston-area residents who have endured unprecedented security and transportation disruptions during the Democratic National Convention. They are also aimed at keeping delegates, or anyone else who will bite, in the area over the weekend to salvage some sales for disappointed merchants.

Quincy Market restaurants and a handful in the North End will knock 15 percent off their prices. Drivers will be given two hours of free metered parking, and a few garages will offer deep discounts. The public will be invited to enjoy everything from free tours of Fenway Park to half-price golf in Hyde Park. Some theaters are offering discounts through BosTix outlets.

"Everyone knows that when you go to a party, you bring a gift for the host," Menino said at a City Hall news conference. "We have a lot of great activities to thank the folks who might have been inconvenienced a little bit."

The events and discounts are being rolled out following grumbling that the convention's benefits haven't trickled down to everyone, leaving many businesses reporting sales down 50 percent. But some business owners yesterday scoffed at the mayor's idea as too little, too late, as they endure a painfully slow week despite the presence of 35,000 out-of-towners.

"We're angry; they scared people away," said George Mendoza, the owner of Monica's restaurant in the North End, as he surveyed 64 empty place settings, not a single customer in sight, at about 1 p.m. yesterday. "We needed help these four days, not for the weekend."

The anger has been particularly acute in the North End and in the Theater District, where business owners had visions of Democrats opening their wallets for lavish lunches and late-night cappuccinos.

Instead, those neighborhoods were empty, with convention-themed posters lining quiet streets and months of expectations draining away in shops, galleries, and cafs. The hometowners, tourists, and office workers who in most weeks jam the downtown streets stayed away, for the most part, alarmed by road closures, warnings of traffic jams, and the massive security measures.

Several theaters canceled performances. "Most of the theaters have taken a huge hit during the DNC," said Joe Donlavey, director of ticketing and tourism for ArtsBoston. And many restaurants and bakeries reported business was off by 50 percent. One North End restaurant owner said his business had declined 90 percent since Sunday, the eve of the convention.Delegates, meanwhile, mostly dined for free at convention events or ate on the cheap-and-quick without venturing to nearby neighborhoods; lines at the Dunkin' Donuts and the McDonald's inside the FleetCenter have stayed long all week.

Menino's Department of Arts and Cultural Development began seeking volunteers to offer discounts earlier this week, with North End restaurants and some theaters ultimately being offered up as enticements; many of those asked to slash prices are the ones hurt by the lack of patrons in the first place.

And while the mayor's incentives could help bring a trickle of business, some proprietors said, most predicted that the delegates would depart before the weekend, locked into plane tickets and hotel reservations.

"If I didn't have to work, I wouldn't be here either," said Kevin Carr, assistant manager of the Colonial Theatre, adding that he doesn't expect discounted tickets to "Mamma Mia!" to help business over the weekend. "I haven't seen a single delegate in the theater. I think it's going to cost Menino the election [in 2005]. It's been a disaster."

Menino characterized as "uneven" the effect the convention has had on business, but said he has maintained that the biggest impact will be in the long run -- as tourism and other bookings pick up after Boston's four days in the national limelight. The mayor noted that restaurants that sought out party bookings beginning months ago are being rewarded this week with big payoffs, even while some of their competitors are having a rough go.

At yesterday's news conference, Menino was joined by business leaders who painted a glowing portrait of business during the convention. Michael Kelleher, vice president and general manager of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, said business is "exceeding our expectations" and the shops and restaurants at Faneuil Hall are on track to see a 20 percent boost this week.

Larry Lucchino, Red Sox president, said Fenway Park was host to a sold-out series against the Yankees, a routine occurrence, and a stream of receptions and tours this week. He said he was speaking for the entire business community in expressing his gratitude to the mayor for the convention. That sentiment wasn't universal. Yesterday, City Councilor-at-Large Maura Hennigan e-mailed about 1,000 residents, urging them to frequent downtown businesses.

"It's awful," Hennigan said. "All the city has been saying for months is, 'Go away.' . . . The press picked up on it and reinforced it.

"I just met with a New York City councilor. He said unsolicited that they want to come back when people are here."

John Reilly, owner of Dairy Fresh Candies on Salem Street in the North End, stocked up on candied Boston baked beans, locally made fudge, and saltwater taffy, and he advertised his wares on posters. He was planning on hawking candy on the streets to draw in foot traffic, but found there wasn't any.

"I hope [Menino] is right about this weekend -- for his sake," Reilly said.

Disappointment also reigned in the city's arts community. Attendance was down 50 percent at the Children's Museum last weekend and has been slower than usual so far this week at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner, museum officials said.

Some residents praised Menino for opening up the city for the weekend. John Thompson, 52, of Weston, said he looks forward to dining in the North End on Saturday to show his support for businesses, as long as the weather cooperates.

"I think it'll work," he said of Menino's idea to gin up business. "The big problem is it will be in the 90s, and I don't do anything in the 90s."

Maureen Dezell and Andrea Estes of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Katherine McCabe and Jamie Vaznis contributed to this report.Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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