COOPERSTOWN The sidewalks were being fixed and swept. Secret Service walked up and down Main Street and through the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Tourists — and the hometown of baseball that is Cooperstown is all about tourists — navigated the cleaning crews and Utica television reporters doing stand-ups Wednesday on a near-perfect spring day.
The Hall of Fame, home to the sport’s immortals, is playing host today to a rare kind of dignitary: President Obama, who is coming to baseball’s Mecca to promote international tourism. It is the first-ever visit to the Hall of Fame by a sitting president.
The visit will come on the heels of the president meeting with business leaders to discuss ways to boost international tourism, and the signing of an executive memorandum calling for decreased waiting times for international passengers arriving at 15 major U.S. airports.
A White House official, speaking on a conference call Wednesday, said the trek to Cooperstown is special to the First Chicago White Sox fan — and his staff.
“It’s the hottest ticket in the White House,” said Valerie Jarrett, an Obama senior adviser and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. “Everyone wants to go.”
“As you know, he is an avid, avid White Sox fan from Chicago,” she continued. “He’s been looking forward to visiting it and drawing attention to a major tourist attraction.”
With attendance slipping every year since 2007, and off nearly 40 percent from its high in 1989, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum welcomes anything that would highlight and boost tourism.
“Every [Hall of Fame] visitor contributes $500 to the regional economy,” said Brad Horn, vice president of communications and education at the Hall of Fame. “We obviously feel that the 300,000 visitors we draw contribute to the $160 million tourism industry in Otsego County.”
Horn said this is the first Hall of Fame visit by a sitting president. Former presidents George H.W. Bush (2003) and Bill Clinton (with wife and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, 2005) visited after leaving office, while Texas governor and future president George W. Bush visited in 1999.
Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, said because of baseball’s international appeal, Cooperstown makes sense as the backdrop for the president’s tourism pitch, adding the United States is “No. 1 in the world in international tourism revenue.”
“More international visitors equals more jobs,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Attendance at the Hall of Fame has suffered in the past decade because of a faltering economy, higher gas prices and a steroids scandal that engulfed the game. There were no living players inducted in 2013, which at one time was expected to be a banner class headlined by Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others later implicated in performance-enhancing drug use.
But the future looks brighter, with fan favorites Joe Torre, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox being enshrined this summer. Future Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. are also expected to draw throngs to Cooperstown, but the biggest draw of all could be Ichiro Suzuki, thanks to the expected multitude from Japan who would make the sojourn for his induction.
On Wednesday, Main Street bustled with preparations. Village Trustee James Dean volunteered his time to weed and rake around the trees, as a work crew finished an unrelated sidewalk project beneath a banner welcoming the president to Cooperstown.
Dean said a lot of people like himself will use the presidential visit to highlight an issue other than tourism: Their opposition to fracking. If ever given the opportunity, he would like to ask the president about energy alternatives.
“I would ask him if he would reconsider some of his positions on fracking and fast-track renewable energies,” he said.
Like almost any presidential visit, Obama’s trip to Cooperstown is expected to draw various protesters to Main Street on a range of issues.
“A lot of people in this town don’t agree with his positions, but they respect his position as president,” said contractor Norman Johannesen, who said he voted for the president, but has issues to pick with him. “I could tell him a few things. … ”
Others in the village Wednesday, from public officials to tourists, were asked what they would ask the president. Most leaned toward the personal. Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz, who moved from New York to Chicago and back, would ask the president about his favorite hometown pizza. John Watkins, a tourist from Fresno, California, visiting the Hall, would like to know who is Obama’s favorite player. Richard Abbate, the Otsego County Democratic chairman, would ask how a president, any president, draws stamina given the demands of the job.
Others have issue questions. Janice Dreeke, a bookkeeper from Canton, Connecticut, would ask how the economy can be strengthened “from the bottom up” to help the middle class. Pat Grady, visiting with her husband and grandson from the Bay Area of California, wants something done for people who still can’t afford deductibles under the Affordable Care Act.
Patricia Szarpa, executive director of the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce, said she would ask about small business development.
“I want him to keep the focus on the work he’s doing to help small business owners, since so much of tourism is small business,” she said.
According to the White House, international visitors to the United States grew from 55 million to 70 million between 2009 and 2013. In 2013, these tourists spent a record $180.7 billion. The number of visas issued has risen 42 percent since 2010. On average, a foreign tourist spends $4,500 per visit.
“Travel and tourism is indeed booming in the United States,” Zients said.