While writers such as Jonathan Yardley (in a recent Washington Post column) lament the passing of "cities real and gritty," people like Elizabeth Jackson, the president of the International Downtown Association, Washington D.C., champion the new look that many metro areas are creating. "They're reinventing themselves as much more than business centers. Increasingly, entertainment is a key feature of downtown regeneration."

In Phoenix, for instance, citizens are glowing about their six-year-old professional basketball arena, which was built to support large meeting activities as well, with 300,000 square feet of exhibit space and function areas for general sessions of up to 30,000 people. Phoenix likes professional sports so much, in March it will open Bank One Ball Park, the new home of the Arizona Diamond Backs, a major league expansion team.

Another example: Memphis, Tenn., has 59 separate downtown development projects under way. This includes a $70 million expansion of the Memphis Cook Convention Center to handle twice as many meetings and Peabody Place, a mixed-use complex that will include a 270,000-square-foot entertainment center. "We see downtown Memphis as the postcard for the entire mid-South region," says Lee Warren, vice-president, Center City Commission.,

Even San Francisco, one of the country's most popular destinations, is getting a facelift. Yerba Buena Gardens is the transformation of a shabby transient area into a cultural district. Begun in 1981, it now includes the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a performing arts theater, and gardens. Up next: two more museums, and a children's center on the roof of the Moscone Convention Center South that includes an ice-skating rink, a bowling center, a technology studio, and a child care facility. And this fall, Sony Metreon comes online with an urban play center--15 movie screens; a 600-seat, 3D IMAX Theater; interactive entertainment venues; and restaurants. Adjacent Yerba Buena Tower, to open in 2000, will have a fitness club and spa, and luxury hotel.

"Downtown is already an adult playground of museums, theaters, restaurants, retail, and meeting venues," states John Marks, president, San Francisco CVB. "The Metreon won't change why planners choose this city, but it will be a wonderful enhancement to it."

Here is a closer look at how four other downtowns are undergoing major changes that will make them more attractive to corporate groups.

Houston's Comeback The fourth largest U.S. city, with a population of 1.7 million, Houston was hit hard in the 1980s' oil crunch. But it is regaining momentum, thanks to $1.4 billion in current development projects. Houston has a master plan to revamp virtually all of its downtown into a mosaic of urban districts, with enhanced transportation, public spaces, and management services by 2010.

"We're surrounding the business community with living, working, and playing [facilities] in a very compact area," says Jordy Tollett, interim president of the Houston CVB. The new downtown hub will be the east side, now targeted as a center for meetings, professional sports, and entertainment. In June, Houston will break ground on a $155 million convention center hotel with 1,026 rooms. Completion is set for 2000. A skywalk will link the hotel to the George R. Brown Convention Center, which is expected to expand by 250,000 square feet, for a total of 700,000 square feet of exhibit space, by the year 2000.

Houston is also building the $265 million Ballpark at Union Station, just three blocks from the convention center, so that its beloved Astros will have a new home downtown. Opening day is in April 2000.

Ten blocks away in the Theater District, Houston just had a bang-up New Year's Eve kick-off for its $23 million Bayou Place entertainment complex. Formerly the Albert Thomas Convention Center, Bayou Place includes an arts-film cinema, restaurants, family pool hall, and a 50,000-square-foot performance hall with seating for up to 2,900.

Making downtown pedestrian friendly, the Cotswold Project is an eight-block restaurant, shopping, entertainment, and residential riverwalk extending from the Baseball Stadium to Bayou Place. It, too, is slotted for an opening in 2000.

Houston is not forgetting its downtown landmarks. The historic Rice Hotel, where President John Kennedy stayed before he made his final trip to Dallas in November, 1963, is being redeveloped into 400 loft apartments. "With the renovation of the Rice Hotel, Bayou Place, new loft construction, the Cotswold Project, and other revitalization activities, north downtown is about to experience a renaissance," remarked Bob Eury, president of the Houston Downtown Management District, in a September edition of the Houston Business Journal.

Houston recently received acknowledgment from President Clinton for being lowest in total non-violent and violent crime among 13 major U.S. cities in 1995 and 1996, based on statistics confirmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"Houston has been a 'secret'. Combining its safety record with downtown redevelopment is part of the overall strategy to make it better known to the country's meeting planners," says Nancy C. Brainerd, president and CEO of the Downtown Houston Association.

Sports-Mad Indianapolis In the mid-1970s, long before most cities conceived the need for a unified marketing strategy, Indianapolis chose sports as an economic and community development tool to counter the "nothing to do" image left by the suburban flight of business and retail. Today, it is the acknowledged national leader in amateur sports, with the National Collegiate Athletic Association headquarters and museum opening in 2000, and six other national sports governing bodies already headquartered in Indianapolis--canoeing/kayaking,diving, rowing, synchronized swimming,gymnastics, and track and field.

For meeting executives, the good news is that most of these organizations have their world-class facilities downtown, and you don't need to be a jock to use them. With proper identification, your attendees can swim in the same Indiana University Natatorium used in 11 major Olympic trials and 14 NCAA Championships, jog on the track used by the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in 1997 at Indiana University Track & Field Stadium (NIFS), or check their cardiovascular fitness at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport. In fact, some companies use the NIFS facilities for team-building experiences.

Developed by the United States Tennis Association, the Indianapolis Tennis Center features an 8,000-seat stadium court, 2,000-seat grandstand court, six indoor courts, 14 outdoor hard courts, and four outdoor clay courts. Large groups often rent the entire complex for tennis clinics, says Doug Bennett, director of sales for the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association.

And that's just a small sampling of what's near the convention center. The Indiana Convention Center is the first of only two national convention centers directly connected to a domed stadium. With permanent seating for 60,500, the stadium was being planned long before the Colts decided to move to Indianapolis. Because the team uses the stadium only 10 days a year, the facility is used year-round for other sporting events, as well as trade shows, conventions, large banquets, and religious assemblies.

Moreover, the convention center is about to expand--with an additional 130,000 square feet of column-free space that will increase total exhibit space to 430,000 square feet.

The city's newest sports attraction is the Indiana Field House, a 1920s retro-look building to house the Larry Bird-coached Indiana Pacers basketball team. It is scheduled for completion in 1999. There's also Victory Field, an $18 million, Triple-A baseball park in nearby White River State Park.

Though amateur sports have directly contributed $1.05 billion to city coffers, downtown Indianapolis doesn't rest on its athletic laurels alone. Its retail kingpin is Circle Centre, which opened in September 1995 with 800,00 square feet of retail space, including restaurants, nightclubs, a nine-screen cinema, a virtual-reality theme park, and the Indianapolis Artsgarden--an eight-story glass dome to showcase the arts in Indianapolis. The latter is often used for special parties or events, and it's just three blocks from the convention center.

Los Angeles After-Hours With 970,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space, the Los Angeles Convention Center is the largest on the West Coast. But it has often been considered an outpost of south downtown, offering few after-hours amenities nearby. That's about to change with the advent of Staples Center, the new home of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball and Los Angeles Kings ice hockey teams. After much wrangling, the Los Angeles City Council awarded the Lakers/Kings franchises the rights to build the privately financed $300 million arena next door to the convention center. The opening is set for October 1999.

"Staples Center will have 250 events a year, both sporting and entertainment. It will bring more people to downtown. The developers own several acres of land and will build a 1,200-room hotel, additional retail shops, bookstores, music and theater venues, and a mixed-use development," explains Kathryn Schloessman, president of the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission.

Schloessman, a recent newcomer from Denver, likens the benefits of Staples Center to Coors Field, Denver's baseball stadium built downtown in the mid-1990s. "For meeting attendees, there will be something to do at night: sporting events and concerts, plus retail around the outside. There will be a lot of state-of-the-art technology for parents and kids," she states.

Even without the new arena, Los Angeles attracts a high percentage of high-tech meetings. According to Carole Martinez, director of media relations for the Los Angeles CVB, a majority of the 2,500 multimedia companies based in L.A. County that formerly fled the city for meetings are now staying in Los Angeles. Further, "a lot of technical companies are coming to L.A. looking to partner with the entertainment industry based here," says Martinez.

Reinventing Boston Some Bostonians might not throw tea in the harbor to protest, but you can be sure they want their say on the transformation of the South Boston waterfront, where approval and funding have finally been won for the new $695 million, 600,000-square-foot Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, slotted to open in 2002. Their concern: that the interests controlling the 1,000-acres from Fort Point Channel to Massachusetts Bay (interests that include the Massachusetts Port Authority, the Federal government, and a variety of private parties) make certain that the neighborhood "is inviting for pedestrians, and that access to the water's edge is not blocked," according to a report in the Boston Globe.

That suits the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Board just fine, because it needs to show meeting planners the benefits of the new site, which is about two miles southeast of the existing city-owned convention center, the Hynes.

"Boston is re-inventing the city in terms of new facilities on an old harbor," explains Larry Meehan, spokesperson for the Greater Boston CVB. Unlike most cities that are expanding near existing infrastructure, Boston had no room to enlarge the existing convention center, the Hynes, whose two-level configuration limited the scope of meetings and exhibitions. (The Hynes will continue to host meetings after the newer, larger center opens.)

The new convention center will be one-quarter mile from the harborside World Trade Center (WTC). With its adjacent Seaport Hotel due to open in May, the WTC will primarily attract corporate meetings and exhibitions.

Because Boston has the third highest average daily hotel room rate, after New York and San Francisco, creating additional hotel rooms is an urgent priority for the city.

Concurrently with the announcement of South Boston Seaport master plan, a proposal was announced for an 800-room Hyatt hotel on the Boston waterfront, between the Federal Court House and Anthony's Pier 4 restaurant. Now projected to have 1,000 guest rooms, the hotel is facing protest by some locals who feel it has the potential to block waterfront views and cast large shadows because of its height.

"In the next six months to a year, we'll know at least one to three major hotels that will develop directly adjacent to the convention center,"assures Meehan.

A key advantage to the new convention center site is that it lies five minutes from Logan International Airport via the new Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor.

The transportation lynch pin downtown will be the new above-ground Silver Line trolley connecting South Station, the developing Seaport District, and the new convention Center and subsequent hotel, office, and retail development areas.

Plans call for two main arteries, Northern Avenue and Summer Street, to be the auto and pedestrian connectors between downtown and South Boston Seaport, with new retail, restaurants, and residential districts planned.

"Boston is such a small city. It [downtown] is within 10 minutes by trolley and a five-block walk from South Station," says Darrell Baker, director of sales for the Greater Boston Convention and Visitor Bureau. "Facilities are finally catching up with the demand."

Downtown Safety Safety is an issue that always comes up as a concern with downtown meetings. Here are some tips to share with attendees:

At All Times: * Travel only with credit and I.D. cards you are likely to use.

* For men: Keep your wallet in your inside pocket. Have small bills in your pants pocket, so you minimize the need to use the wallet.

* For women: Carry your purse close to your body, and never sling bags with longer straps loosely over your shoulder.

* Be wary of distractions. Several pickpockets often work together.

* Never enter an elevator if someone makes you feel uncomfortable. Take the next car, or ask the hotel for an escort. If you think you're being followed, notify hotel management; never go directly to your room.

In the Hotel: * Accompany your luggage to your room with the bellman.

* Check that the lock works and that the door closes securely. Always engage the chain or deadbolt after entering the room.

* Don't bring valuables to meetings unless absolutely essential. Expensive items like cameras should be locked in the hotel's vault.

* Never open the door to someone you don't expect who claims to be a hotel employee. This is a common ruse for thieves. Ask for identification, or call the hotel desk.

Outside: * Get directions before you venture outside; never appear to be lost.

* Take medallion--not gypsy--taxis or shuttles that you recognize.

* Walk with another person. Single targets are easier crime victims.

* Avoid wearing your badge or carrying conference bags.

City Resources If you're meeting in a city you've never used before, there are many resources that can help you get information fast. Here's a guide to getting help when you're exploring unfamiliar territory:

Convention & Visitors Bureaus A convention and visitors bureau (CVB) is the best place to get general information about a city. Every major city in the U.S., and many international cities as well, has a CVB. Among the services they offer:

* Provide printed information such as meeting planner guides and restaurant/attraction guides

* Arrange site inspections

* Facilitate connections with local suppliers

* Provide bids from member hotels

* Help book space in a convention center and assist with on-site registration

* Provide brochure shells and other promotional materials

The Internet The Internet is a fabulous resource, but most of the travel Web sites are best for general information. One exception is TravelWeb (www.travelweb.com) which allows you to search for hotels by inputting parameters such as the city, price range, and required amenities. The results include specific hotel and general city information, as well as meeting facilities and photos. In addition, most CVBs now have Web sites; some provide a wealth of information. Links to CVB Web sites can be found at the International Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus site (www.iacvb.org) or at www.meetingsnet.com.

Guidebooks Like the Internet, guidebooks can be helpful for gathering general information about a city and offer one big advantage over CVB publications: their listings come from independent reviewers. Here are some of the most useful:

Access: Updated regularly; approximately 35 guides for major cities, states, countries; (800) 331-3761

Fodor's: Updated annually; 30 guides to U.S. cities, 50 foreign guides; (800) 533-6478

Frommer's: Updated annually; about 100 titles, including city, regional, and country guides; (800) 428-5331

Zagat Surveys: Updated annually; restaurant guides for cities in the U.S., Canada, and London; U.S. hotel, resort, and spa surveys; America's top restaurants; (800-333-3421)

City Profiles USA (Omnigraphics, Detroit, 1997); A comprehensive source of information on 200 U.S. cities; (800)234-1340)