March 26, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Detroit's plan: Get Final Four fans talking, spending

Bookies Bar & Grille and its co-owners, John Lambrecht and Mark Jerant, are the official hosts for fans of the East Regional team. (Velvet S. McNeil / The Detroit News)

DETROIT -- The Final Four won't rival the Super Bowl in size or scope, but Detroit's turn at hosting the college basketball championship comes just in time to rescue the city's ailing national reputation -- and boost the coffers of downtown businesses to the tune of as much as $50 million.

The 100,000 fans expected to descend on Detroit the weekend of April 4 for this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four are likely to be as fanatical about technology as basketball, with visitors sending updates about their visit in real time through instant messages on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, city boosters said.

The word-of-mouth publicity is "more valuable than dollars and cents," said Jim Townsend, executive director of the Tourism Economic Development Council, a division of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The event will generate between $30 million and $50 million in economic activity, from money spent at bars and hotels, to wages paid to florists, caterers and security guards, Townsend said. There are no weekend vacancies expected at the 40,000 hotel rooms in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, he said.

Though the economic impact is less than five times the sum associated with the 2006 Super Bowl, the last major sporting event held at Ford Field, the Final Four games will "improve the image of the city," said Olga Savic Stella, vice president of business development for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., a private nonprofit that helps create new investment and job opportunities in the city.

"It will only help enhance people's understanding of what the city is and how much fun it can be."

The Super Bowl brought 100,000 visitors to Detroit and generated $261 million in economic activity, Townsend said. The next largest sporting event hosted in Metro Detroit in recent times, the 2004 Ryder Cup golf tournament at Bloomfield Hills' Oakland Hills Country Club, drew 130,000 visitors who spurred $114 million in economic activity.

Tourism, Michigan's second largest industry, generated for Detroit more than $4.8 billion in 2006, bringing more than $800 million in tax revenue and supporting 55,000 jobs, Townsend said.

Regional gathering spots

Downtown business owners are anticipating a boost from tourist dollars and the "party atmosphere" the Final Four championship will likely bring.

Bookies Bar & Grille, which opened March 10 at its new Cass Avenue location, has been designated by the NCAA to host East Regional fans as an official "fan gathering site" and expects to serve a 300-person capacity crowd all weekend, said co-owner John Lambrecht.

Detroit Beer Co. and Hockeytown Cafe will be hosting South and West Regional fans, respectively. Cheli's Chili Bar will host the Midwest.

"We are just going to throw one big party," Lambrecht said. "It will be almost like a college town, but in Detroit."

The sports bars, chosen for their menus, seating volume and proximity to Ford Field, are expected to serve as surrogate college campuses for fans of the playoff teams and decorate themselves in school colors.

Featured on the NCAA Web page and other game-related publications, the extra publicity has been a boon for Bookies, Lambrecht said. He has received calls from corporations interested in renting his space for private parties for Friday and Sunday, when there are no games.

Stimulus off the court

But less traditional game-watching venues are also expected to benefit. Though Woodward Avenue's Oslo sushi bar doesn't usually bring a sports crowd, the restaurant hopes to cater to out-of-town fans looking for Asian cuisine, said co-owner Katalia Lemos.

Lemos said she hopes the tourist influx will enliven the city for the weekend.

"It's been kind of depressing around here," she said. "So many of the other places on the block have closed."

The People Mover, Detroit's monorail that encircles downtown, is extending its hours to 3 a.m. to serve the visitor influx, according to Dennis Green, marketing manager for the Detroit Transportation Co. The Super Bowl brought 200,000 riders over a five-day period, up significantly from the 25,000 to 30,000 the People Mover sees in an average week.

The People Mover will help advertise downtown businesses when it puts into service a new car decorated with the logos of more than two dozen restaurants. "It's kind of our economic stimulus package, so to speak, to give restaurants downtown exposure," Green said.

Demand for the monorail, which completes a 2.9-mile loop every 13 or 14 minutes and boasts sweeping views of the city and Windsor coast, was so great during Super Bowl that visitors lined up outside Renaissance Center station for one and a half hours just to board, he said.

You can reach Jaclyn Trop at (313) 222-2300 or">

Workers assemble the Final Four floor at Ford Field on Wednesday. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit New)