Tuesday, July 03, 2007

'Fortress Gemmayzeh' wants its customers back

'Fortress Gemmayzeh' wants its customers back
Bars and restaurants unite to make area safer

By Nour Samaha
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The bars and restaurants in the Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayzeh have responded to concerns that the popular area is at risk of attacks by boosting security and launching a mini-marketing campaign. Business revenues in Gemmayzeh have dropped dramatically in the past month as a result of recent explosions targeting commercial areas in and around Beirut. Some bar-hoppers and restaurant-goers are choosing to stay away following rumors that the area was unsafe and at risk of future attacks because of lax security measures.

Emails circulated from companies and official institutions warning employees Gemmayzeh was "next" on the hit-list - an attempted smear campaign against the flourishing of businesses in the area, according to some. As a response, the owners of the businesses decided to instigate a campaign to bring back their patrons. "We want to motivate people to come back to 'The Street' again by placing advertising campaigns in the local newspapers," said Walid Baroudi, owner of Italian restaurant Corleone. "We want to remind people that we are still here, and [that] we are a safe and secure area. We have introduced a new security system that is one of the best." "Gemmayzeh is unique because it has a wide variety to offer the public," said Makram Zeeni, owner of Barbu and head of the committee trying to woo back its clientele. "Every outlet is special in itself ... There is a mistaken impression among the people that we are closed. We are never closed and we will never be closed, and that is why we are launching this campaign." The street, which consists of almost five dozen small- to medium-sized bars and eateries, has witnessed a 40 per cent drop in revenue, according to Baroudi, although he said that business was beginning to pick up over the last few days. "We've seen a better situation the past few days, and hope that things will continue to improve," he said. "As soon as people stop listening to the rumors, the place will be booming again." The past month and a half has witnessed a significant decline in business in the area, added Zeeni. "For four weeks we were running at 2 or 3 percent of our total income," he said. "But in the last couple of weeks it has increased between 15 and 20 percent."

At least half a dozen explosions have been detonated in Beirut since May 20, instilling fear and panic among the population. Targeting popular tourist and commercial areas like Achrafieh, Verdun and Aley, the explosions have been followed by hesitance on the part of residents to go out, out of fear of being caught up in the next attack. Gemmayzeh was known as one of the upcoming hotspots for both locals and tourists - attracting all different types of people to its diverse venues. Yet the last few weeks the neighborhood has visibly emptied - almost a ghost town during the week with only a few die-hard loyalists perched on bar stools. "As soon as Gemmayzeh was mentioned as a target, people stopped coming," said Nimr Abboud, owner of Bread restaurant, referring to the emails. "I've lost approximately 90 percent of my business over the last month, so we hope that the idea of the new security company will bring people back." "On a psychological level people will feel safer knowing we have improved our security on the street," he added. "On top of that, they do numerous checks on cars and people in the area." Some night-time revelers are choosing to make their new haunts rooftop venues such as White, Sky Bar and Bubbles, citing security as a prominent reason. Yet, since these venues tend to be seasonal, Zeeni feels that the novelty will soon wear off. "We are here all year round, regardless of the season," he said. "They think they feel secure there, but it makes no difference really, and our security here is very tight."

Middle East Security, the security company employed in Gemmayzeh, is a local firm that protects the entire area, not just the main street. Receiving compensation of $25,000 a month, the firm says it is using all possible means to ensure the security in the area, including the use of dogs, random checks, parking security, and patrols. "We want to live despite all that is being said, and also because [the people circulating the rumors] don't want us to live," said Zeeni.

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