Sniper Could Damage D.C. Economy

The spate of unsolved sniper shootings in Washington's suburbs threatens to deliver another economic blow to the nation's capital, still trying to recover from terrorism and anthrax.

The shootings come as tourism, a major component of Washington's economy, was trying to return to levels before Sept. 11, 2001.

"People have a lot of choices where they want to travel. For many people, this appears to be a pretty good reason not to visit," said Anriban Basu, an economist with RESI, the consulting arm of Towson University. "The attacks on 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, and now this; it's just too much. If this were to persist, you would see more people say, `I've had enough."'

Even before the sniper shootings began, tourism was down. The industry was expected to bring $9.1 billion into the local economy this year, down 11.3 percent from 2000, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

"The industry is on shaky ground right now," said Cathy Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association.

While no conventions have been canceled due to the sniper shootings, some school trips have been postponed or shifted. WorldStrides, a Charlottesville, Va.-based company, had scheduled 100 student trips to the capital this fall. Since the first sniper shooting on Oct. 2, 10 trips have been postponed, and the itineraries of another 15 were changed. Instead of sleeping in the suburbs, the students and teachers will be housed at hotels within the District of Columbia city limits, said Lisa Cassidy, director of customer development.

The local economy already has had to deal with serious problems. Reagan National Airport in suburban Arlington, Va., was closed for three weeks after Sept. 11 because of its proximity to federal buildings; full service wasn't allowed to resume until the following April. Anthrax-filled letters were mailed to Capitol Hill, and the region's high-tech industry went the way of other dot-com companies.

"We were on the road to recovery," said Mantill Williams, a spokesman for the AAA, the former American Automobile Association. "The timing of these attacks has really been bad. If this person isn't caught soon, this could have a devastating impact."

The impact is already being felt in some areas. With high school students not allowed off-campus for lunch, restaurants catering to them report a drop in business. With the sniper having gunned down four people as they pumped gas, business is down markedly at some service stations.

The overall economy has yet to be hurt, business leaders said.

"People still need to go about their business and buy the things they need," said Richard Parsons, president of the Montgomery County, Md., Chamber of Commerce. "People still need to buy gas. They still need milk and groceries."

In some cases, residents are changing where and when they shop. District of Columbia gas stations become more attractive, even with higher prices, because the only sniper shooting in the district occurred two weeks ago a few yards from the Maryland state line. Indoor malls take preference over strip shopping centers. Delivery services report more business.

"We've hearing from our customers that they just don't want to go out," said Richard Baran, owner of Takeout Taxi of Kensington, Md., which delivers meals from area restaurants. "I think people are very, very nervous at this point."