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Chicago Prepares For 2012 NATO Summit


An American city, Chicago, is playing host to the 2012 NATO Summit. That international meeting gets underway in just over a week. At the top of the agenda for President Obama and his visiting counterparts will be determining the next steps in Afghanistan. Along with dignitaries, the summit is expected to draw thousands of anti-war protesters, raising safety fears among residents and businesses in Chicago. But as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, the city says it's ready.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The NATO Summit technically runs for a little more than 24 hours, from Sunday May 20th to the middle of the afternoon the following day. But the planning has been underway for nearly a year.

BRUCE CORSON: We have a really - a full house tonight.

CORLEY: Bruce Corson is the president of SOAR, a community group in Chicago's upscale Streeterville neighborhood. Last week, he addressed nearly 300 people in a small ballroom at the Ritz Carlton hotel. They came to hear the NATO Host Committee's plans and to ask about protecting the neighborhood - well known for its high-end shops and hotels along Chicago's Magnificent Mile.

As the lights from the room's sparkling chandeliers dimmed, Lori Healey, the host committee's executive director, told the crowd not to worry - Chicago, she says, knows how to put on big events.

LORI HEALEY: Election night, when President Obama was elected, went incredibly smoothly. The Fourth of July we have a million to a million and a half people would come down here. Taste of Chicago. The Air and Water Show.

CORLEY: The NATO Summit is expected to draw thousands of foreign dignitaries, protesters, and journalists. That makes it what's called an NSSE, or a National Special Security Event. Retired Secret Service Agent Arnette Heintze says that means the Secret Service and other federal agencies work with local police to set up venues, motorcade routes, and security measures.

ARNETTE HEINTZE: They plan for the best, but they also prepare for the worst.

CORLEY: In Chicago, a city of nearly 3 million, traffic is already a challenge. Add motorcades, chase cars, closed streets - and how to navigate it all was a big concern for the Streeterville residents. So was safety. Bruce Corson read this question from a resident.

CORSON: What to do if we should get caught up in a group of unfriendly demonstrators.

DEBRA KIRBY: The Chicago Police Department will be highly visible throughout your area.

CORLEY: That's Debra Kirby - the Chicago police chief in charge of planning for the summit.

KIRBY: If you do get caught up in a group that's moving along, obviously the best thing to do is move to the edge. We don't anticipate roving bands of people sweeping up people off the sidewalks.

CORLEY: Restaurant owner Maria Mitchell Tsourapas says she wasn't worried about the NATO Summit until her landlord talked about safety precautions.

MARIA MITCHELL TSOURAPAS: The landlord started telling us that he wanted to close the building and billboard the front of our building. And then I heard from other businesses that they were thinking about boarding up their businesses, and I didn't realize there was anything to be so fearful of.

CORLEY: Residents aren't sure what to expect because big global meetings in the past have sometimes turned violent, but that's not always the case.

CROWD: And so are you. We are the 99 percent. And so are you...

CORLEY: At Chicago's May Day demonstration, Rachel Perrota with Occupy Chicago marched with hundreds of others. Perrota says the protests against NATO actually begin tomorrow with what activists are calling a People's Summit.

RACHEL PERROTA: It's time to stand up to the warmongers and to demand that 50 percent of our federal tax dollars no longer go to kill people on the other side of the world. May 18th and May 20th are going to be the massive marches here in Chicago. We'll see you in the streets.

CORLEY: In the days leading up to the summit, city officials and demonstrators have sparred over where rallies and protest marches can occur. The city has banned any camping at public parks, and groups like Occupy Chicago have called for volunteers to house protestors coming into town.

There's a sense of expectation on both sides. NATO host committee chief Lori Healey says the upside for Chicago will be big returns from higher spending at hotels, restaurants and retailers.

HEALEY: There are also the long term economic benefits, such as increased domestic and international tourism and reinforcement of Chicago's brand as a world class city.

CORLEY: That's if all goes well.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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