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Maryland city readies for Mideast talks

Annapolis, Md., is hosting next week's Mideast peace talks and preparations include hotel room greetings with lyrics from John Lennon's song "Imagine."
The Mideast peace talks set for Tuesday will be held inside the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
The Mideast peace talks set for Tuesday will be held inside the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.Kathleen Lange / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The only sign Chance Walgren has seen that a Middle East peace summit is coming to this small waterfront city is that Maryland state flags lining Main Street were replaced this week with American flags.

When hundreds of foreign dignitaries and their entourages descend on Annapolis for talks at the U.S. Naval Academy, he'll be ready at the Laurance Clothing store he manages downtown if they have a matter arguably as pressing as brokering international peace.

"We don't expect to see some of them," Walgren said, "but it is not uncommon for people to come to town and grab a belt or pair of boxer shorts that they forgot."

Representatives of nearly 50 countries and groups have been invited to the conference Tuesday that will involve President Bush at the start, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli, Palestinian and other Middle Eastern leaders and international diplomats. Talks will be held on the sprawling campus of the military school, on the banks of the Severn River next to the Colonial-era downtown.

The short duration of the talks, scheduled for just one day in Annapolis with events in Washington on the preceding and following days, likely means the city and its hotels, shops and restaurants won't be affected for long.

"I'm sure Annapolitans would like our city to be associated with positive things," Richard Hillman, a former mayor and a resident of the town's historic district, said of the prospect the city's name could become synonymous with a peace initiative. "But we already are."

Hotel greeting, city proclamation
Still, the 300-year-old city is doing its best to be welcoming. The Loews Annapolis Hotel plans to place a dove-shaped sugar cookies with white icing on guests' pillows, paired with a card with lyrics from John Lennon's song "Imagine." And Mayor Ellen Moyer has proclaimed Tuesday "Annapolis Conference Day."

Unlike other peace talks, held at remote places inaccessible to the public like the Camp David presidential retreat in western Maryland, the Annapolis round will be in a densely populated city of roughly 35,000 people.

About 30 miles east of Washington, Annapolis is a quintessential Chesapeake Bay city. The state capital is a throwback to Maryland's colonial history and a reminder of the state's long tradition of making a living from, and playing on, the water.

Winding and narrow streets flanked by clapboard and brick houses trickle down from the white-spired, 18th century State House that commands a hilltop at the city's center. The City Dock, choked with yachts and pleasure boats during warmer months, anchors the bottom. Around it are art galleries, trinket shops and restaurants serving the region's signature dish, steamed blue crabs.

Equally part of Annapolis's image is the academy, which takes up a large chunk of the downtown area and some prime waterfront. As a 338-acre military base, it is not technically part of the city, but like the big school in any college town, it is a major part of the city's fabric.

Unlike most military facilities, the academy is usually open to the public. Blue uniformed midshipmen are a common site on downtown sidewalks. City residents have rallied around the surging Navy football team, which recently beat Notre Dame for the first time in 44 years and is readying for the annual Army-Navy game Dec. 1 in Baltimore.

Campus can handle crowds
The academy's fall football games, along with the annual 90-day legislative sessions of the Maryland General Assembly, long ago trained Annapolis to handle big crowds and a lot of disruption. Residents have to deal with crowds from games, frequent boat shows and a regular influx of tourists.

"It is not something that is going to tie us up on a major way," said city spokesman Ray Weaver of the peace talks, though the city still has few details on how the event will run.

Nor has St. John's College, a small liberal arts school that abuts the academy, been told much about what to expect next week, according to school president Christopher Nelson. But the meeting's lofty goals far outweigh any local hassle, he said.

"Associating this small community with a grand hope for peace is a grand thing for the town."

Things are not quite so peaceful among shop owners on Main Street. With the critical post-Thanksgiving shopping surge approaching, many are wary that another big event might scare shoppers away from downtown.

Kerry Smith's cookware store usually clocks about 40 percent of its annual business during the last two months of the year. Business has already been hurt by a wilting economy and a just-completed special General Assembly session, during which lawmakers took all the prime parking spots. Even the perception that the city will be crowded could drive shoppers away, he said.

"I'm having a hard time finding positive things to say," Smith said of the peace talks.