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May 23, 2014

Obama invites foreign tourists to U.S. attractions

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — President Barack Obama wants the United States to draw 30 million more foreign tourists each year to sites such as the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, according to a plan he was expected to detail in a stop at baseball's iconic shrine Thursday afternoon.

Last year 70 million tourists came to the United States from other countries, according to the White House, and they spent an all-time high of $180.7 billion on hotels, restaurants and other services.

Obama was expected to outline strategies to lure even more people. The Obama administration, for example, hopes to pare down wait times for international travelers arriving at customs checkpoints in U.S. airports. Those times already have been sharply reduced in Chicago and Dallas through technology upgrades.

Shopkeepers, political leaders and residents of this upstate village excitedly anticipated Obama's arrival since word of the presidential visit leaked late last week. Obama would be the first sitting president to visit Cooperstown since Martin Van Buren in 1839.

Then, at 3:07 p.m. Thursday, Marine One finally touched down in Cooperstown, and the president's motorcade made the short drive to the Hall of Fame.

Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, was expected to lead Obama on a tour. Andre Dawson, who played outfield for the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs during a 21-year career, was expected to join the president, a fan of the Chicago White Sox. Dawson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Obama was expected to see baseball exhibits including “Diamond Dreams,” highlighting the role of women in baseball; “Pride and Passion,” exploring the history of African Americans in the game; and “Today's Game,” featuring the accomplishments of modern players.

Artifacts he would see include Jackie Robinson's jersey, Babe Ruth's bat and Jim Thome's 500th home run baseball.

Obama also handled a few items — something most visitors don't get to do. Among them were a ball that William Howard Taft threw in 1910 in the first-ever presidential first pitch on Opening Day; President Franklin D. Roosevelt's green-light letter declaring that baseball would continue during World War II; “Shoeless” Joe Jackson's shoes; Joe DiMaggio's glove; and a World Series ring.

Obama finished a short speech and wrapped up his visit less than an hour after he arrived.

In Cooperstown before Obama's arrival, maintenance workers spiffed up the exterior of the Hall of Fame, and shopkeepers along Main Street tidied up in anticipation.

“Everyone is putting on the best face possible,” said Mayor Jeff Katz. People who typically disagree on political issues set aside their differences, said Katz, to support Obama's goal of increased tourism, a major industry for Cooperstown and Otsego County.

“There is a feeling in the air that this is going to be a really special day,” said Katz.

Not every agenda was put aside, however. A large crowd of protesters chanting “End fracking now!” greeted Obama's motorcade outside the museum. They waved an assortment of anti-fracking signs.

“I wish he was spending more time here,” said Ellen Pope, director of the environmental advocacy group Otsego 2000, whose family roots in Cooperstown date to the early 1800s. “He will see the Hall of Fame and fly over the countryside. But he is only touching on a small portion of why this region is so special.

“We believe that tourism and his natural gas policy don't mix,” said Pope. “You can't have tourism in a place like this and have fracking, as well.”

Among guests expected inside the Hall of Fame were Cathy and Lee Mayne, parents of the late Michael Mayne, a U.S. Army corporal killed in Iraq in 2009. The Maynes were invited to listen to Obama's speech by Congressman Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, who met them after attending Memorial Day events in their town, Burlington Flats.

Joe Mahoney writes for The Daily Star of Oneonta, N.Y.

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