- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — Rey Cabanos sipped his soft drink, leaned across the table and smiled when asked what he thought about the trial of one of the Beltway sniper suspects being moved to his town.

“It’s going to bring business to us,” said Mr. Cabanos, who owns and operates the cafeteria in the basement of the Virginia Beach courthouse, an area with few other eateries within walking distance.

Mayor Meyera Oberndorf said she views the Oct. 14 trial of John Allen Muhammad as part of a situation that has caused enormous suffering, not a “tool for tourism.”

Still, businesses in this seaside resort and in neighboring Chesapeake, where the Nov. 10 trial of fellow sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo will be held, already see the events as moneymakers. Each trial could last six to eight weeks.

Some Chesapeake hotels quoted nightly prices about $100 higher than normal in anticipation of the arrival of lawyers and perhaps hundreds of out-of-town reporters.

But the hotels readjusted prices to about $20 above the usual winter rate after another judge moved the Muhammad trial to neighboring Virginia Beach, said Kimberly Schlick, director of sales and marketing for LTD Management, which manages several hotels in Chesapeake.

The Marriott Courtyard, for example, which initially charged $249 a night is now charging $149, she said. Its regular off-season rate is $119 to $129.

“I don’t think it’s as favorable [for Chesapeake hotels] as if there was just a trial in Chesapeake,” Miss Schlick said. “People who will be coming down for Muhammad probably will find a central location to both trials and probably stay put.”

She still thinks Chesapeake hotels will benefit, though not as much. Fewer than 10 hotels and motels are within a 10-minute drive of the courthouse.

“We thought that because of access and hassle-free traffic, people in the media would want to be as close as possible and pay the extra 20 dollars,” Miss Schlick said.

Chesapeake officials have also received calls from residents offering to rent their homes during the trial, said city spokesman Mark S. Cox.

“The general consensus is that this is probably the biggest event that has ever happened in Chesapeake, certainly in terms of national attention,” he said.

Mr. Muhammad, 42, is charged in the fatal shooting of Dean H. Meyers at a gas station near Manassas. Mr. Malvo, 18, is charged in the fatal shooting in Fairfax County of Linda Franklin, 47. Both suspects face the death penalty.

The judges in their cases agreed to move the trials 200 miles away from the Washington suburbs that were terrorized last year. Defense attorneys had argued that every resident in the two Northern Virginia counties, where the trials originally were to be held, could be considered a victim because of the fear that gripped the area.

Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo have been linked to 20 shootings, including 13 killings, in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Prosecutors have said the killings in metropolitan Washington were part of a scheme to extort $10 million from the government.

Old Dominion University economics professor James V. Koch said the financial impact of the trials will be highly targeted — with restaurants, hotels and telecommunications vendors most likely to benefit.

However, he thinks the trials will have little economic impact overall on Hampton Roads, the port- and military-dominated region in southeastern Virginia that includes Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. The area has about 1.5 million residents.

The region’s gross domestic product, or the value of its economic activity, is about $50 billion, said Mr. Koch, who teaches in Norfolk, which is also in Hampton Roads.

“People forget about how large our regional economy is,” he said. “It’s huge. What will be true is the economic impact will be substantial in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, especially among certain hotel owners and restaurants.”

Zero’s Subs, a shop down the street from the Virginia Beach courthouse, plans to order extra food and bring in additional staff during the Muhammad trial. Owner Willie Wilcox said the store typically serves about 200 customers a day, and he expects the number to double during the trial.

“We’re really happy that this is coming here,” he said. “We expect it to really help us.”

Even restaurants that aren’t quite so close expect to draw more customers.

A Taste Unlimited store about eight miles from the cafeteria-less Chesapeake courthouse may send employees to the courthouse around noon to sell box lunches, said assistant manager Woody Williams.

The store also expects to see an influx of reporters around suppertime, because it is near the hotels closest to the courthouse, he said.

Still, Mr. Williams wonders whether the store might appear to be exploiting a tragedy.

“I had thought about it, but I feel like people do have to eat,” he said. “I know the reason they’re here is an unfortunate circumstance.”

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