Seoul’s Iranian Expatriates React to Disputed Election Aftermath

•July 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

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By MATT MEDVED

mohsen

Mohsen Payandeh / MATT MEDVED

Mohsen Payandeh stood in the North Gate stairwell glued to his cell phone while the hulking mass of Seoul World Cup Stadium trembled behind him.

He paced the length of the stairs leading down to the subway in search of quiet. But the air was ringing with passing conversations and the practiced sales pitches of street vendors, the stairs too strangled with fans enroute to the Korea Republic-Iran World Cup soccer qualifier to navigate.

He hung up his phone in frustration and leaned against a guardrail while the crowd churned by.

“Are you by any chance Iranian?” I asked.

His smirk said it all. Draped in a voluminous green and red Iranian flag that clung to his shoulders, there was no mistaking his allegiances.

Payandeh, a 25-year-old businessman from Tehran, said he was waiting for his father and brother to join him. He became quite animated when I brought up the disputed presidential election that took place five days prior in his home country.

“It is finished,” Payandeh said. “Finished. There will be no change.”

Payandeh described himself as a supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist ex-prime minister who had contested incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection bid. The June 12 election results gave Ahmadinejad a landslide 63% victory over Mousavi’s 34%, sparking massive protests in the capital’s streets by Iranian citizens who believed the vote was rigged. Payandeh shared their sentiments.

“I think [Ahmadinejad] took it,” Payandeh said. “I really think so. Many of my friends are Mousavi supporters. Now they are angry. Now we are angry.”

Just then, two older men emerged from the crowd and Payandeh waved them over.

“That is my father and brother,” he said, smiling. “They are both named Mohamed.”

Both Mohameds greeted me enthusiastically, but there was no time to talk politics. The crowd’s cheers had swelled to roars and Payandeh was anxious to get inside.

The family took off at a sprint toward the entrance gate whooping and yelling “Allahu Akbar”, the same chant that thousands of Iranian protesters hollered from their rooftops that week into the black uncertainty of the Tehran night.

*****

The bustling streets and claustrophobic alleys of Itaewon belie its position as the heart of Seoul’s foreign community. Itaewon is a cultural patchwork quilt where African and Indian restaurants share the same city block, where kebab stand owners hawk their steaming wares under the neon glow of Russian dance club logos. But it was a rather humdrum looking Starbucks where I was to meet with Shayan Rezaee, an Iranian-American businessman, to discuss the elections.

shayan

Shayan Rezaee / MATT MEDVED

Rezaee, 25, had also attended the soccer match, which ended in a 1-1 draw that snuffed out Iran’s hopes of World Cup qualification. But while he acknowledged his disappointment, there were more important issues on Rezaee’s mind.

Five years removed from his last visit to Tehran, Rezaee said he had supported conservative candidate and ex-commander Mohsen Rezai in the elections. Recognizing his candidate was a longshot, however, Rezaee said he preferred Mousavi to Ahmadinejad.

He was therefore “shocked” and disappointed when the election news broke.

“It was night here and my friend from Iran called me and he said ‘we have to wait four more years,’” said Rezaee. “My first reaction was to swear. It was unexpected for me.”

Rezaee said he couldn’t say for sure whether the vote was rigged or not because he was not there but he certainly has his suspicions.

“It’s hard to believe the election results, especially in Mousavi’s hometown,” said Rezaee. “It’s a little unbelievable that Ahmadinejad got more than him there.”

Rezaee also said the swiftness with which Ahmadinejad’s victory was announced seemed suspicious to him.

“The counting took less than 12 hours. How can you do it?” said Rezaee. “They didn’t use computers, it was all paper voting. They have to count by hand. It’s just really hard to believe.”

Although Rezaee supports the protestors in Tehran, he was doubtful that Mousavi’s “Sea of Green” movement was actually benefiting the country, Rezaee said the protests “are not going to help” and does not believe there are enough people to effect real change in Iran.

“People are still worried, they don’t want to give blood,” said Rezaee. “A thousand people died in 1979. If people want real change, they’re going to have to pay in blood.”

Rezaee said Iranians were too comfortable in their current situation to make the necessary sacrifices to overthrow the current regime.

“If I could speak to the Iranian people I would say ‘stop it’ said Rezaee. “It’s not the time for change. If you want to [change the system], ok let’s do it, I will come out there and join you. But it’s just not enough. People are too happy with their lives.”

Rezaee also said he believed the vandalism and violence was counterproductive and hurting the country’s infrastructure.

“If you are destroying public property, what is that accomplishing?” said Rezaae. “Tehran is losing one bus, a bus which can carry 1,000 people per day to work.”

Rezaee said he “totally disagreed” with the shooting of protestors in Tehran and described the crackdown on Internet and cellular phone communication as “very tactical.”

“No regime wants to be taken down,” he said, gulping down the last of his coffee. We disposed of our cups and headed for the door. Rezaee sighed.

“If they don’t think they can change the situation then they need to get their hands back on their jobs,” said Rezaee. “Help Iran. Wait four years. Don’t do it for Ahmadinejad. Do it for Iran. Do it for yourselves.”

After coffee, Rezaee led me through a winding back alley to a small Persian restaurant. Gilded plates and Persian calligraphy line the walls, interspersed with framed photographs of Tehran. As we sat down in crimson chairs, a tall dark-eyed waiter took a cleaver to a steaming leg of lamb and nodded to Rezaee. I ordered a kebab.

The waiter went outside to chat with a few customers before reemerging with my kebab. He refused to give his name but said he was 32 years old and originally from Isfahan, motioning to a framed picture of Iran’s second most populous city.

“George W. Bush was the best president America ever had,” he announced after I told him my nationality. “He was the only person who was brave enough to stop Saddam [Hussein].”

He said he had not been back to Iran since paying $6,000 for a fake visa six and a half years ago to get into Korea with the assistance of friends. He said he had “no idea what is going on” with regards to the election.

“Ninety-nine percent of the Iranian guys you see around here don’t even have high school degrees,” he said with a grin, pointing outside to the Itaewon streets. “Life in Korea is pretty hard. They’ll say they want the government to change but really, they have no idea.”

*****

pedram

Pedram T. / MELISSA K.

Rezaee introduced me to his friend Pedram T., a 30-year-old student at Seoul Christian University, who had also been at the soccer match.

While the Iranian fan section erupted around him with each shot and block, a green-clad Pedram and a fellow Iranian student had hoisted placards reading “Where is my vote?”, one of the rallying cries of Mousavi’s movement.

Pedram, who is originally from Tehran and came to Seoul in 2005, said he was “disappointed” with the election results.

“Half of my mind was expecting Mousavi to win,” Pedram said. “I was getting hope seeing those who had never voted in their whole lives getting in lines to support this guy. But in the history of Iran we’ve never had a president who comes for just four years and goes away. So part of my mind was like oh maybe Ahmadinejad will win.”

Pedram said the situation in Iran had settled into a behind the scenes “diplomatic fight” between politicians. When asked about former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has backed Mousavi and whose position as the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts could give him the power to pursue a dismissal of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Pedram spoke in a hushed tone.

“People think he has so much power. They think he can do whatever he wants,” said Pedram. “The Supreme Leader is the top one but many people believe Rafsanjani has the most power in his hands, under the table. There is a rumor they want to put Khamenei out of the leadership. But you never know, this is politics.”

Pedram has spread footage of pro-government Basij militias and riot police using violence against protestors using websites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube because he believes the public should know what is going on.

“These people are not animals and they’re beating them,” said Pedram. “It’s not about the vote anymore, it’s war.”

Tabrisy has also been in close contact with his family in Tehran, having called his mother the night before we spoke.

“The last few days everything went down, we don’t see anything on the news,” said Pedram. “My mom said last night actually the city is more peaceful now but in the main square there are still Basij.”

Pedram said he had booked a flight back to Tehran for July 25th but his family persuaded him to cancel it, knowing he would not be able to “just stay home.”

“In the last two weeks my life has changed,” said Pedram. “I’ve been crying over seeing people beaten to death. If I were there, I’d be shot now, I’d be dead. I’d be outside protesting, helping people. That’s why my parents didn’t want me to go back.”

Pedram was selected to serve as an election officer at Seoul’s Iranian embassy on election day. After the news of the results broke, Pedram observed a protest outside the embassy where other Iranian expatriates had gathered. He tried to record a video of the scene, but the protesters told him to leave, believing that he worked for the embassy.

“The community thinks I work for the embassy or I am a member of the system,” said Pedram. “But how could I be a member of the system and have the green sign which said ‘Where is my vote?’ in my hand at the game?”

He said many expatriates were worried about getting involved because many, like the waiter in Itaewon, are not in the country on legitimate visas.

“Unfortunately most of the population here are workers. Some of them have visas some don’t,” said Pedram. “Most of the people here prefer to keep to their own business rather than get involved. A lot don’t even go out because they don’t want to be seen.”

Pedram said it has been difficult for him to follow the news of the election aftermath from abroad as he feels guilty for not being a part of the protests.

“This feels the worst,” said Pedram. “I felt left out. But it’s not this way for a lot of [Iranian expatriates]. On Facebook everyone is saying they need to do something. Why am I the only one who is spreading the news? Are you not the same? Are you not Iranian? I just don’t understand.”

Red Cross Cares for Thousands Across Tennessee

•September 4, 2008 • Leave a Comment

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DIPTI VAIDYA / THE TENNESSEAN  New Orleans residents Tammy Fenderson, left, and Linda Thompson anxiously watch TV reports from Louisiana on Monday at the Red Cross shelter at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville. The Red Cross says there are 450 to 500 evacuees in Nashville and 10,000 in the state.

New Orleans residents Tammy Fenderson, left, and Linda Thompson anxiously watch TV reports from Louisiana on Monday at the Red Cross shelter at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville. The Red Cross says there are 450 to 500 evacuees in Nashville and 10,000 in the state. DIPTI VAIDYA / THE TENNESSEAN

By MATT MEDVED

Willie Butler had not planned to spend his Labor Day at a Red Cross shelter in Nashville.

But the 52-year-old New Orleans resident wasn’t complaining as he scanned the television news coverage of Hurricane Gustav, sitting in a makeshift cafeteria at Two Rivers Baptist Church.

“I’m just very relieved it wasn’t as bad as they said it could be,” Butler said. “I’m hoping to get on back there soon.”

Three years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Butler was stranded for 11 days in his flooded Mid City Bowl apartment before boats rescued him from the 7-foot waves. While he had considered waiting out the storm again this time, he decided to heed the mayor’s orders and boarded a Mass Care evacuation plane to Nashville on Friday night.

Butler was one of more than 2,000 Gustav evacuees being housed in 10 Red Cross and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency shelters across Middle Tennessee. Red Cross spokeswoman Jill Gorin said there were 450 to 500 evacuees in Nashville and 10,000 evacuees in the state.

Although a Nashville Red Cross representative was deployed to the Gulf Coast before the storm hit, there are no current plans for additional deployments unless the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorizes them. Instead the local Red Cross is focusing its efforts on taking care of evacuees in Tennessee.

Guard is on the way

“In the last 48 hours, statewide the Red Cross has distributed more meals than we did in the entire Tennessee tornado relief operation” in February,” Gorin said.

Some 600 state National Guard soldiers and airmen were preparing to deploy to the Gulf Coast on Monday.

Although his area did not appear to have been hit hard, Butler was still concerned that his neighborhood could flood if the levee walls failed.

“People think they’re going to go home tomorrow,” Butler said. “There’s no way. If that levee gives way, it could be just as bad as last time.”

John Lee, a Red Cross volunteer at the Two Rivers shelter, said about 180 evacuees had been flown in to the shelter Saturday.

‘Tension, uncertainty’

“The Red Cross will be here as long as the evacuees need us,” Lee said.

Although Lee described the evacuees as calm and cooperative, he acknowledged that there was also an atmosphere of “tension and uncertainty.”

This sentiment was etched into the creased face of Lavell Hewitt, 52, of New Orleans, who had just received word that his home’s area in the Ninth Ward was underwater.

“I’m just glad to be out and well,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt spent two days waiting for rescue on the roof of his waterlogged home before helicopters came to his aid in 2005. He had to rebuild his home months later upon his return.

“I had just finished working on my home when the storm came,” Hewitt said. “Looks like I have to start over again.”

Libraries see high Internet demand

•September 3, 2008 • 1 Comment

Madison branch library patrons use the Internet stations Sunday afternoon. Computer usage at libraries has skyrocketed. Job searches, research for school projects and connecting with friends on social networking sites are among the most common reasons customers use library computers, patrons and librarians say. GEORGE WALKER IV / THE TENNESSEAN

By MATT MEDVED

Tennessee library patrons are waiting longer for computers as libraries struggle to match a steady increase in demand for the Internet.

Nashville Public Library branch administrator Barbara Weedman said overall computer usage increased by more than 10 percent from the last fiscal year to the one that ended June 30. The system tracked a record 890,246 one-hour computer sessions on 478 public Internet terminals over the most recent fiscal year

“We’ve seen this demand just grow and grow,” Weedman said. “It may be associated with people saving money from having an Internet connection. Also, not everyone can afford to own a PC in their home. We’re helping to bridge that digital divide.”

The numbers reflect a national trend charted by the Chicago-based American Library Association, the nation’s largest library membership group. The group released a report Tuesday showing only 17 percent of libraries nationwide say they have enough computers to handle patrons demands at all times.

Job searches, research for school projects and connecting with friends on social networking sites are among the most common reasons customers use library computers, patrons and librarians say.

Nashville resident Phil Chase, 56, said he frequents the Southeast Branch of the Nashville Public Library in Antioch once a week to check his e-mail since his home computer crashed. He usually has to wait an hour and a half to get on a computer. “The library is free, close and convenient to go to,” said Chase.

The demand has grown to the point that nine out of every 10 libraries in the country have been forced to institute Internet session time limits to allow fair Internet use distribution, the report showed. Nashville implemented a reservation system with a maximum one-hour session in 2007.

Gallatin librarian Lin Hagen said her branch of Sumner County’s system hosted 72,079 Internet sessions in 2007, up considerably from the 2006 figure of 38,574. She said enacting a reservation system accounts for some of the increase because patrons could browse the web indefinitely prior to its arrival. “It certainly seems like the demand is up,” Hagen said. “Even since we started the new system, every computer is booked.”

Curtis McMillan, 21, said he visits the Southeast branch in Nashville once every two days to check his e-mail and other sites like MySpace and Facebook. He said he normally has to wait before he can get access to one of the computers and described the current availability as “inadequate.” “I think they should invest in more computers,” said McMillan. “It’s a simple fact that everyone uses the computer these days.”

Library computer use

Tennessee | National
Number of hours that the average public library outlet is open per week :
45.3 | 45
Average number of Public Internet Workstations per public library:
14.3 | 12
Percentage of public libraries with wireless service:
70% | 66%
Percentage of public libraries that don’t have wireless service but plan to make it available within the next year:
7% | 12%
Percentage of public libraries where they are the only provider of free public internet access to the community:
56% | 73%
Percentage of local libraries that plan to add more computer workstations or laptops within the next year:
18% | 16%
Percentage of libraries who say there are always sufficient public Internet-accessible computers available:
24% | 17%
SOURCE: AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION

Tennessee lawmakers react to Biden’s VP nod

•August 23, 2008 • Leave a Comment

By MATT MEDVED

Tennessee Democrats praised Democratic presumptive nominee Barack Obama’s announcement of Delaware Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate Saturday, while Republicans claimed the pick amounted to an admission of Obama’s inexperience.

While reports of Biden’s vice presidential nod leaked out to the media Friday evening, the pick was not made official until the Obama campaign sent out a 2 a.m. text message confirmation. Obama and Biden made their first joint rally in Springfield, Illinois Saturday afternoon.

Wilson County Democratic Chairman Todd Sharpe said Biden was a “good, solid pick” and a “likable guy.”

“I hope he brings a little bit of reassurance to the experience question,” said Sharpe.

“Obama represents a whole new idea, its not about ‘is he ready?’ It’s ‘are we ready?’ He has an extraordinary ability to inspire people to demand better for themselves in big numbers. When you put that along with a guy like Biden, it balances it out.”

Sumner County Democratic Vice-Chair Leonard Assante said he had met Biden in the past and was “very happy” to see him on the ticket.

“I was very impressed with his knowledge in foreign policy and defense issues, which is something Obama does not have as much experience on so there’s a good contrast between the two,” said Assante.

“I think it makes the ticket stronger overall. Biden speaks his mind. You hear people talk about him having a big mouth but I like that. I like the honesty.”

Assante said he was pleasantly surprised that he had not heard more dissatisfaction from supporters of New York Senator Hillary Clinton in Tennessee.

“Clinton won Tennessee in the primary and I thought there’d be a lot of people out there wanting her to be the VP pick but I haven’t heard anything,” said Assante.

However, while former Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter praised Biden as a “solid, sound statesman,” he said Clinton was his personal preference.

“I think Biden’s safe and sound and he would complement Obama’s presidency if he’s elected,” said McWherter.

“But I believe if he had picked Hillary we would have had a chance to carry Tennessee. As it is, it will be an uphill battle.”

Serving as Governor from 1987 to 1995, McWherter said he knew Bill Clinton when he was he was the Governor of Arkansas and has supported the family since. McWherter also had some sage advice for the newly minted Democratic ticket.

“They need to get out with the people more, out here to the real America and talk to the average man and woman who get up everyday and send their kids to schools,” said McWherter.

“Hit some places like Murfreesboro instead of Detroit, Johnson City instead of Atlanta. You can have large crowd of sixty or seventy thousand but those are the people who are going to vote for you anyways.”

Tennessee Republican Party spokesman Bill Hobbs said the Biden pick was tantamount to “an admission by Obama that he has absolutely no foreign policy experience” and that it muddled the Democrats’ message.

“You really undercut your message of change when you pick someone with 30 more years of Senate experience than most people have been alive,” said Hobbs. “It’s hard to say you’re the candidate of change when your vice president is the status quo.”

Hobbs echoed an advertisement released by the McCain campaign today, saying that there has been “no harsher critic of Obama’s lack of experience than Joe Biden.”

“On multiple occasions he’s said Obama is simply not ready to be president, he simply does not have the foreign policy experience and credentials that the country needs,” said Hobbs.

“I think voters should consider that ultimately it’s not the vice president we’re electing. The person at top of ticket is Obama and he’ll be making decisions if he’s elected. It’s not Obama and Biden vs. McCain, it’s Obama vs. McCain.”

State Republican Party Chairperson Robin Smith acknowledged that McCain and Biden had been friendly towards one another during their Senate tenures, but pointed to major differences between the two.

“I do think McCain will respect Biden on his accomplished record and that’s the big piece that’s missing with Barack Obama,” said Smith.

“I think we can expect moments of collegial exchange, but without question we know McCain has a much more conserve voting record with regards to taxes, the issue of life, and the definition of marriage. Biden has an extraordinarily liberal voting record.”

John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said Biden should prove to be an effective spokesman for Obama and assuage fear about his presidential qualifications.

“This pick became more and more important not only because of Obama’s new emergence on the national scene but also because of the attacks that McCain and fellow Republicans have been leveling on Obama about his readiness to lead,” said Geer.

“If you think of the president and VP as a partnership, which began under Clinton and Gore in 1993, Biden would be a great partner for Obama if he becomes president. Especially if he needs to navigate the tricky international waters.”

Geer said Biden’s life story could appeal to swing blue-collar voters that Obama has had trouble reaching.

“He’s got a compelling narrative and working class roots in Scranton,” said Geer.

“After he was elected to the Senate, he has a tragic car wreck that kills his wife and daughter. Since then, he’s been taking train back and forth to his Delaware home and he’s a totally dedicated family man. He’s actually like McCain in that he’s a genuine guy and is not as scripted as some. But the American public understands that.”

Geer also touched upon some of Biden’s potential downsides, including his status as a long-time Washington inside and his history of verbal gaffes. He said it was possible Republicans would try and use Biden’s controversial description of Obama as “the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” against him.

“Biden sometimes says things he wishes he hadn’t, so you have to do some damage control,” said Geer. “The Republicans will pick through Biden’s long record of votes and pick out quotes of him criticizing Obama or praising McCain. But no candidate’s perfect.”

While Geer does not believe Biden will turn Tennessee blue, he does believe the pick could help Obama in certain battleground states.

“I think Biden provides a little bit of strength here in Tennessee, but it’s not likely to be in play,” said Geer. “But Biden helps him in key states like Pennsylvania and Ohio and Virginia and that’s where action’s going to be.”

ObamaNelson.com fuels more VP musings

•August 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

By MATT MEDVED

Amid widespread speculation around Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s VP pick, it appears that a number of potential ticket URLs are popping up on the Internet.

The most intriguing seem to be www.obamanelson.com and www.obamabayh.org, which redirect back to the Illinois senator’s campaign home page.  Most combinations of Obama and other vice presidential shortlist regulars, such as Joe Biden, Kathleen Sebelius, and Tim Kaine, are also parked on GoDaddy.com.

How much should be read into these? Probably not much. It’s more likely to be the work of Internet squatters hoping for a payday once the pick is announced. It’s also possible that the Obama campaign has reserved a number of potential website addresses in preparation for the pick. Anyone with a keyboard and a credit card can register a site (Exhibit A: http://www.obamabiden.org… which redirects to http://www.stop-obama.org). But speculating is interesting and anything beats waiting for the Holy Grail of text messages to come through.

As for http://www.obamanelson.com, a Whois.Net domain search revealed that the address was registered by a “Joe Chan” through GoDaddy.com. In contrast, the registrant of the actual campaign site was listed as “Obama for America.” The search did not have results for http://www.obamabayh.org.

Since the chances of Obama picking a Bayh not named Evan are slim, it can’t hurt to look further into the potential Nelsons that could be a dark horse candidate.

The more obvious candidate would be Bill Nelson, the senior senator from Florida. Nelson could theoretically help boost Obama in the all-important swing state and while he doesn’t sport as many foreign policy credentials as Biden, he has served on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a 2006 trip to Damascus. He is also a vigorous opponent of offshore drilling on Florida’s coast. But perhaps most importantly, he one-ups McCain in the aviation department, having been one of the only two sitting members of Congress to fly into space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986.

But don’t count out Ben Nelson, the junior senator from Nebraska who serves alongside Chuck Hagel. A conservative Democrat with pro-life credentials, he would be a post-partisan pick that would fit with Obama’s message of change and perhaps sit better with Democratic leadership than having Hegel a heartbeat from the Oval Office. However, he had a hand in crafting the Bush tax cuts and was one of the only two Democrats to vote against a failed March 2007 resolution for troop withdrawals from Iraq. He did later introduce a bill to transition U.S. troops out of Baghdad in July and he, too, has voted consistently against offshore drilling.

But there’s only one Nelson that could potentially put the red state of Tennessee into play. Seeing as it’s no longer taboo for candidates to admit histories of drug use, what’s to stop Willie from propelling the Democrats to fall victory?

A special thanks to Joe Chan for making this post possible, whoever and wherever he may be.

Favre trade the best outcome for the Bears

•August 7, 2008 • Leave a Comment

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By MATT MEDVED

After a ludicrous soap opera that may have filled more sports news cycles than last summer’s Vick Watch, Brett is finally a Jet.

And the Bears are breathing a hefty sigh of relief.

Although there was speculation that Number Four could land in Soldier Field, Green Bay’s decision to ship Brett Favre cross-conference may actually be the best result for Chicago.

Although his stellar 2007 campaign may have been a fluke, Favre has been the bane of the Bears’ defense for more than 15 years. Favre sports a 22-10 record all-time against the Bears and is 12-3 in Soldier Field. So much for homefield advantage.

Perhaps even more importantly, Favre was denied his wish to go to the rival Minnesota Vikings who are a quarterback away from making a serious playoff push. Adrian Peterson and the Viking defense are scary enough for the Bears to face twice a year without worrying about Favre’s token fourth quarter heroics.

Now that the NFC North is Favre free, the Bears’ quarterback quandary suddenly doesn’t look as woeful compared to the rest of the division. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn have a combined zero NFL starts. Minnesota’s Tarvaris Jackson is unproven. And how many good seasons does Jon Kitna have left in him for a Lions team that cannot protect him? Should Grossman or Orton prove to be at least somewhat decent, the Bears have a fighting chance this year to make a dent in the division.

As a Bills fan, I’m less than pleased to see Favre land in the AFC East. But the question still remains of which Favre will don the green and white in 2008. Will it be the 28 touchdown gunslinger of 2007 or the turnover machine that threw 29 interceptions in 2005?

Likely to be somewhere in between, but I’m still not sure the Jets are a playoff team with Favre onboard. There’s no doubt he’s an upgrade over the soon-to-be-released Chad Pennington and third year pro Kellen Clemens.Their receivers are iffy and although they made substantial investments in their offensive line this offseason, much will depend on how well it gels. The 38-year-old Favre will revert to his mistake prone ways if opposing defenses can get consistent pressure on him.

But the Bears don’t care about any of this. For the first time in fifteen years they don’t have to see Brett Favre at all unless both teams make the Super Bowl. And there’s an even smaller chance of that happening than there was of Favre staying retired in the first place.

Nashville hotel bookings tumble as travelers cut back

•July 29, 2008 • 1 Comment

Original Permalink

Jennifer Marvin of Rodgersville gets checked into the Ramada Inn hotel by Glenda Con on Saturday afternoon. Nashville's hotel bookings slid sharply lower in May and June. ARMANDO SANCHEZ / THE TENNESSEAN

By MATT MEDVED

Nashville’s hotel bookings slid sharply lower in May and June, suffering from the summer doldrums as vacationers around the country took shorter trips or stayed home because of rising gas prices and economic uncertainty.

“It is a significant decrease, but it’s not too much of a difference from what we’re seeing in larger markets,” said Smith Travel Research vice president Duane Vinson.

The most recent data from Smith Travel, a Hendersonville-based research firm, shows hotel occupancy in Nashville fell 8.4 percent in June compared with a year earlier across all properties, following a 12.5 percent drop in May. Budget hotels were hit the hardest, especially last month.

Vinson said the economy played a role in the declines, as did the fact that Nashville has built more hotel rooms in the past year, adding about 600 rooms to Music City’s summertime supply of almost 34,000 rooms.

“It certainly could be the rising gas prices, but it’s not just them,” Vinson said. “In light of a downturn in the economy, we’re continuing to open new hotel rooms, which is probably not the best thing to happen with the drop in room demand.”

Vinson said cities considered prime leisure destinations are feeling the strain more than business markets. Nashville straddles the line between the two categories, he said. Room rates here are holding steady, though, between $94 and $98 a night on average, Smith Travel data show.

“The leisure markets are highly dependent on flying traffic, and we’re obviously seeing an impact of the airline industry cutting flights,” Vinson said.

Few top markets gain

Among the nation’s top 25 travel markets Dallas, New York and San Francisco are seeing slight improvements in hotel occupancy. New Orleans also posted big gains in travel this summer, but that’s in part because the Crescent City is still recovering from shattered tourism numbers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Vinson said.

Walt Baker, chief executive officer of the Tennessee Hotel and Lodging Association, said Nashville’s marketing partnership with Southwest Airlines has helped insulate the city from some of the airline industry fallout, which is linked to higher fuel prices. Southwest has done better than most airlines in hedging against higher fuel costs with long-term contracts for jet fuel.

“Southwest was terribly smart in buying their fuel futures, and now they’re paying a lot less for jet fuel than other airlines,” Baker said.

Drew Dimond, founder of the Dimond Hospitality Consulting Group, said fewer leisure travelers are on the road this summer, and that hurts many hotels.

“Since this time of the year is heavily weighted towards leisure travel, it gives you an idea of who is not traveling,” Dimond said.

All Nashville hotels are not created equal. The latest Smith Travel Research report shows economy class hotel occupancy down 12 percent in June, and about 10 percent off for the first six months of the year compared with the same period in 2007.

“My sense is that the people who would stay in low-budget hotels are the hardest hit by what’s going on,” Baker said, referring to the nation’s economy. “It is severely curtailing their activities. Upper-end customers are probably trading down to your mid-scale (properties), but there’s no place for budget hotel customers to fall out to.”

Ray Waters, the general manager of the Nashville Hilton Downtown, said the Hilton has fared pretty well this summer, with occupancy coming within “four-tenths of a percent” of last year’s figures. Waters attributed the Hilton’s relative success to its focus on business conventions.

Conventions are stable

“We try and fill up with group business because they tend not to cancel and are much more stable than transit customers,” he said, adding that travelers are more cost-conscious. “I think the hotels sitting back and waiting for phones to ring are going to be the ones suffering,” Waters said.

Nevertheless, some Nashville-area residents are continuing to make travel plans, even if they are more subdued than in years past.

In previous years, 65-year-old Brentwood resident J. Michael Patterson took overseas trips to England, Scotland and Ireland. But this year he plans on visiting his children in Knoxville, Charlotte and Atlanta, while checking out local attractions and staying in budget hotels along the way.

“I’m going to be making a number of day and weekend trips this year, not only because of the gas prices, but because of foreign exchange rates, too,” Patterson said.

Baker said the hotel association adjusted its summer marketing to more of a local approach within a 300- to 400-mile radius. “Locals are probably less likely to pack a bag and stay at the neighborhood hotel, but the real magic will be somewhere outside of 100 miles where it takes less than a tank of gas to get there,” Baker said.

Dimond said a local focus makes sense, but there’s not a lot to be done to cure the weak occupancy numbers. “The hotel industry usually lags six months behind the economy,” he said. “The best strategy is an improved economy.

“We’ll start seeing improvement when the Dow Jones average hits 12,500 points. But the key is: Will hotel operators be able to maintain their rates? If they maintain (room rates), then I think they will be OK. The big fear is that they’ll have to start discounting. It’s a matter of weathering the storm.”