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$1M lost because of leak, Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau has heard from only 12 businesses so far regarding financial losses from the Jan. 9 chemical leak into the water supply, CVB President Alisa Bailey said they're already totaling $1 million.

During the initial days after the leak, restaurants and businesses throughout the capital and the nine-county affected area were shutting their doors after the state government and West Virginia American Water issued a "do not use" advisory for water. The only things people were told they should use water for were flushing toilets and putting out fires.

"The negative results are obvious in the short term," Bailey told board members Wednesday.

Loss of revenue for restaurants, retailers and hotels were reported -- including one store in the Charleston Town Center that reported anecdotally its sales were $45 one day that week. Wages were lost for those in the service industry who were without work for days. Bailey said the loss of hotel/motel taxes would result in a reduction of the CVB's fiscal year 2014 budget.

The CVB filed a "loss of business" claim with its insurance company, but it wasn't clear Wednesday where that might lead.

Board members passed a motion approving the city government's potential legal action regarding the leak of the chemical Crude MCHM into the Elk River. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said during the meeting that the city has hired two law firms -- DiTrapano, Barrett, DiPiero, McGinley & Simmons, as well as Forbes Law Offices -- to assist in the process. Jones said the city will be involved and that he hopes to involve the Civic Center and the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority.

Bailey said what keeps her "awake at night," are the potential long-term negative effects of the leak on Charleston's reputation -- as well as the entire state. Bailey said she is concerned about the ability to attract events, conventions and tourists to the region.

"The West Virginia brand has been damaged," she said, after showing board members several national news and satire clips of chemical-leak coverage.

So how can the CVB work to repair the damage caused by at least 10,000 gallons of a chemical released into the city's water supply?

The CVB is looking to Oxford Economics for help. The economic analysis firm assessed the potential impact of 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Gulf Coast tourism. The firm will provide the CVB with a proposal of what it would cost to assess not only the leak's impact on tourism, but across the city.

Bailey said she hasn't gotten many calls at the CVB but that those who have called have asked how safe the water is.

"We're just being honest with them as to what's going on in our own world and that it is getting better and better every day," Bailey said.

No one on the CVB board said they felt completely comfortable telling potential visitors the water is safe, especially with a suspicious community, leaders giving few definitive answers and new information about various aspects of the leak that continue to be revealed.

Public trust has to be restored before the CVB can start repairing the city's image.

"It has to end before you do anything," Jones said. "People have to sign off on this water."

Mark Cherry, general manager of Embassy Suites, said a major frustration of the leak was the inability to find a central point of contact to find out exactly what was going on after the initial do-not-use advisory.

"The city had nothing on their website. Emergency management had nothing on their website," Cherry said. "You know, we were reduced to watching the news, and I had people in my hotel that I couldn't take care of."

Cherry said not a day goes by without the hotel getting a phone call about the safety of the water, if amenities are available and if restaurants are open.

"The word hasn't got out beyond the immediate area that anything is going on," Cherry said. "The state doesn't get it. They think it's only our nine counties. We're on our own, and it's not right."

Last week, West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Betty Carver said the Elk River chemical leak hasn't tarnished the state's image.

"A destination's image does impact decisions to visit there," Carver said, "but I think we have incredible offerings here. It will be up to the tourism industry and other officials to make sure we're telling the story and presenting where we are to potential visitors."

Carver said tourism destination outside the nine-county area affected by the water shutdown "never missed a beat."

"The recreation areas around this area are operating at regular capacity," she said.

Jones said the city needs to convince the Legislature that this affects the entire brand, because "they're not for us," when it comes to assisting Charleston with an economic rebound.

"You have a few House members that will help us, but they view Charleston like Uzbekistan or something," Jones said. "Hopefully, it'll dawn on them that this affects the whole state."

Staff writer Eric Eyre contributed to this report.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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