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G-20 security driving away Pittsburgh's bustle

Security plans for the G-20 summit  in Pittsburgh include a vehicle ban, leaving protesters and foreign dignitaries likely to  experience an emptier-than-normal city when the two-day event begins Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nick Mancini Hartner is like a lot of downtown business operators: He doesn't know what to expect if thousands of protesters show up for the Group of 20 economic summit or, for that matter, how many customers will show up either.

That's why he'll try something new during this week's summit at his Mancini's Hearth Baked Bread shop. He'll lock the doors and instead sell a limited menu of fresh breads on the sidewalk out front.

"That way, we can react to whatever's happening," said Hartner, whose mother's family owns the business. "If it's a regular lunch crowd, we can open up the store. If it's slow, we can pull back and come inside and lock up."

Security plans include a vehicle-free, three-block perimeter around the convention center and a ban on most vehicles elsewhere in the city's dense, triangular downtown — leaving protesters and foreign dignitaries to likely experience an emptier-than-normal Pittsburgh when the two-day summit begins Thursday. Commuters will have to park outside downtown and either walk or take mass transit into the business district.

Many businesses are closing
Thousands of protesters and media are expected to come to town for the summit, a gathering of the leaders of the world's 20 top economies.

What's unclear is how many commuters will come downtown. Many businesses are closing or — like Highmark, the health insurance giant that normally has 5,000 employees in the area — having most employees telecommute or work at other offices.

"We tried very hard to create a sense that Pittsburgh did not have to shut down for the G-20 ... but I think the momentum was so strong that people just decided to shut down," said Secret Service spokesman Special Agent Darrin Blackford.

The city, with a population of about 310,000, usually draws about 200,000 commuters on a typical weekday.

In addition to many businesses, the city's public and Catholic schools will be closed along with most city, state and federal offices, cultural centers like the Carnegie museums, many bank branches, and most colleges and universities in the area.

But if President Barack Obama spills food on his tie, Macy's says its downtown department store will be open to sell him a new one.

Amtrak trains will pass through Pittsburgh, but passengers will be allowed only transfer to other trains; no boarding or disembarking here. Greyhound, the bus company, is temporarily moving its city operations to McKeesport, about 10 miles away.

Fear of protests
Commuting uncertainty, fear of protests like those that rocked April's G-20 in London and fear of the unknown are all fueling the momentum to stay away, said Robert Arnoni, president and CEO of Specialized Security Response Inc., based in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

At the meeting in London, anti-capitalist demonstrators tried to storm a bank; one man died from internal bleeding after he was pushed to the ground by an officer when he was caught up in demonstrations near another bank.

"The feeling of the unknown is going to breed fear," Arnoni said. "A lot of executives I've talked to say, 'That's the week I'm taking vacation.'"

Arnoni's company has regular security guards and ex-military personnel with special operations experience who are in demand for the summit. He said the Pittsburgh Pirates have hired his firm for two games that will be played as scheduled during the summit at PNC Park, just across the Roberto Clemente Bridge from the heavily restricted downtown area.

"People don't really, truly have any clue what to expect when they're going down to a sporting event in a situation like this and I'm sure they're saying, 'Man, is it really worth it?'" Arnoni said.

Lara Bruhn, who runs the Prantl's Bakery that shares a storefront with Mancini's, doesn't think it is. Her downtown bakery will be closed.

"I'd be asking employees to get up at 4 o'clock in the morning and go through all that if just three (customers) are here?" Bruhn said.

That uncertainty has also caused larger businesses to take precautions against nontraditional protests or violence — including targets like FirstEnergy Corp.'s Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station about 30 miles away.

Securing nuclear power plants
FirstEnergy has spent more than $30 million to secure three nuclear power plants since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and took unspecified "extra steps" for the G-20, spokesman Todd Schneider said.

"Our biggest effort has been to ensure that our security force is in coordination with local, state and federal agencies if an event should happen," he said.

Meanwhile, Nebraska-based cyber security firm Solutionary, which has had a 24/7 operations center in Pittsburgh, is guarding computer networks for more than a dozen area companies from vandals or "hacktivists," said chief technology officer Mike Hrabik. The firm can quickly determine if a computer service interruption is the result of an attack or just a normal failure, he said.

"Jumping to a conclusion (that there's been a cyber attack) or pulling all the plugs or drawing a wrong conclusion can send you down a path that can also be disruptive," Hrabik said.

Even more publicized aspects of G-20 security remain uncertain.

Police Chief Nate Harper originally suggested he'd need about 4,000 officers. He has nearly 900 officers and expects 1,200 state troopers and 1,000 others from out-of-state departments. Other regional departments are contributing officers, and the city is getting more commitments each day.

"It's a work in progress, and whatever number we wind up with, that's what we'll work with," Harper said.