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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Nov. 25, 200812:00 PM EST

New home for World Congress & Expo on Disabilities

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

There are many reasons why an organization might choose one city over another for its annual meeting, trade show or other event. It might be climate, or convenient transportation or availability of recreational opportunities or even how many and what kind of restaurants can be found there.

In the case of the World Congress & Expo on Disabilities held last week at the Osborn Convention Center, the deciding factor that led to the organization holding its annual event for the first time in Jacksonville can be summed up in one word: “Accessibility,” both in terms of facilities and in terms of assistance from all parts of the community.

The event is held once a year and provides a trade show for products and services used by people with physical and mental disabilities plus a comprehensive lineup of workshops, symposiums and keynote addresses by leaders in the fields of diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.

“Our audience is made up of two groups,” said Mark Dineen, WCD Expo managing director. “Seventy percent are consumers, people with disabilities and their caregivers and families. Thirty percent are professionals who serve the needs of the disabled community. In terms of exhibitors in the trade show part of the expo, we have everything from major corporations to mom-and-pop businesses based on inventing a better mousetrap to help a family member with a disability.”

He said this year was the ninth edition of the expo that was held for two years in Atlanta before moving to Orlando for its next three years, then to Philadelphia and last year, to Washington, D.C.

Jacksonville was first considered because someone who was involved with the show lives here and suggested the city as a possible site. Dineen said moving the show to Jacksonville would make it easy for people who live in Georgia and Alabama to attend as well as Florida residents, but it was the people they met that sealed the deal.

“(WCD Expo President) Bill Schwaninger and I came to Jacksonville for a meeting with City officials. We thought it was just going to be a few people involved but there were 40 people in the room from all different City departments and the entire disabled community. Anybody we asked to help us said they were ready to oblige us, so it was off to the races from there,” said Dineen.

Schwaninger said he has visited a host of cities but saw things his first time in Jacksonville he had never before encountered.

“It’s the first time I have ever seen such a level of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance from the curb cuts (that allow people in wheelchairs to easily get on the sidewalk after crossing a street) to the elevators to when I walked into my hotel and saw a low counter for wheelchairs at the check-in desk.”

He was also impressed by the reception he got when he was considering holding the expo here this year.

“The assistance we got from the mayor’s office and every City department has been wonderful. Visit Jacksonville was also very helpful,” said Schwaninger.

Visit Jacksonville became involved after the expo was already scheduled into the convention center, said Lyndsay Rossman, director of corporate communications. The event’s administrators needed to book blocks of hotel rooms for exhibitors, presenters and some of the attendees.

“We estimated 3,000 people would attend the expo,” she said. “A lot of those people are local although this event will bring people from a three-hour driving range. We also calculated the event would result in 900 room nights in two days and all of Downtown’s hotels were impacted. When it’s all added up, we estimate the total economic impact of the expo at $500,000.

“That’s great, especially in this economic market and at this time of year. And any time we can bring new people to Jacksonville, it’s great for the city.”

Everyone involved on the city’s side of the World Congress & Expo on Disabilities knew it would be an important audition that could determine if the event would ever return to Jacksonville. Based on a comment Dineen made while he waited for the exhibit hall to open to the public Friday morning, the city’s first time won’t be the last.

“We have already reserved the convention center for this time next year,” he said.

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