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Thinking twice on 'Fortress Toronto'; City welcomes the world this weekend, but people seeking a quick trip may find the security stifling

If you're thinking about driving up to Toronto for a quick weekend getaway, you might want to pick another weekend.

That's because this Saturday and Sunday, Toronto is hosting the G-20 summit, a massive meeting of world leaders that promises to disrupt travel and commerce in the city.

Some say the strict and costly security measures have transformed the city into "Fortress Toronto."

The expected disruptions prompted the U.S. State Department to issue an alert encouraging Americans to stay away, and the AAA is warning travelers to Ontario to expect delays at the border.

"This would not be the ideal time to be traveling to Toronto," said Shaun Seufert, a spokesman for the AAA of Western and Central New York.

The security tab for the G-20 summit, and a second summit being held this week 115 miles northeast of Toronto, could reach $1 billion -- more than the expense for security for the entire Vancouver Olympics.

The intense security in the downtown core has closed the CN Tower, the Rogers Centre and two major theaters, and prompted some companies to ask their employees to work from home. It also is expected to jumble traffic patterns in the city, with some major routes closed altogether or subject to spot closings for the summit.

City officials acknowledge the anticipated difficulties, but they say Americans should feel welcome to visit and will find plenty to do this weekend outside the main security zone.

"They know there'll be disruptions, but no one expects anything monumental," said Gary Ralph, a spokesman for the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, who calls the State Department alert "just silly."

The G-20 and the G-8 summits give leaders of the world's most influential countries the chance to meet to discuss economic, security and other issues.

President Obama, other dignitaries and thousands of support staff -- with up to 3,000 media in tow -- are expected at the summits.

The G-20 is in downtown Toronto on Saturday and Sunday, while the G-8 event will be held Friday and Saturday in Huntsville, Ont.

Both summits feature tight security because of the presence of the world leaders and because they attract thousands of protesters, some hoping to disrupt the proceedings.

A group of anarchists who claimed responsibility for the May firebombing of a bank in Ottawa warned in a video that its members are heading to the G-20 and G-8.

Thousands of city police will be on hand, bolstered by officers from throughout Ontario and the rest of the country.

The leaders attending the G-20 will meet in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, but organizers have set up a security perimeter around a larger portion of downtown Toronto.

This inner security zone includes some of Toronto's most identifiable landmarks, such as the CN Tower, which is closed through the weekend.

Access within this inner perimeter, which is marked off by about 2.4 miles of security fencing, is strictly limited.

People who live or work within this zone had to apply for security passes and must show them and two forms of ID to get to their homes or offices, said Constable Rodney Petroski of the Ontario Provincial Police.

Well-dressed businesspeople are being encouraged to ditch designer clothes to avoid making themselves a target for anti-corporate protesters.

The Rogers Centre is not inside this main security perimeter, but the Toronto Blue Jays still relocated this weekend's home games to Philadelphia.

And the Princess of Wales and Royal Alexandra theaters closed as a precaution.

But city and tourism officials point out that other activities still are going on and other popular venues remain open, such as the Toronto Zoo and the Ontario Science Centre.

The Air Canada Centre still is hosting a Saturday concert by Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra, and BMO Field is hosting a Saturday night game for the Toronto FC soccer club.

Toronto has efficiently handled large-scale, high-security events in the past, notably a 2002 visit by Pope John Paul II for World Youth Day, said Stuart Green, a spokesman for Toronto Mayor David Miller.

Vehicular travel within the main security perimeter is restricted. Traffic on the Gardiner Expressway, a main route into the city for drivers traveling from the south, will be frequently disrupted and occasionally closed down altogether, officials said.

Green encouraged anyone traveling to Toronto to avoid taking the Queen Elizabeth Way into the city and, instead, to take Highway 403 to Highway 401 and loop down into the city.

The U.S. State Department's travel alert -- dismissed as an "overreaction" by Toronto's mayor -- warns Americans to avoid trying to enter Toronto during the summit.

A spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency said the summits will produce increased "volumes and pressures" at entry points into Ontario.

But the agency is committed to providing enough agents and other resources to ensure that there are "no unnecessary delays" at the border, Sabrina Mehes said in a statement.

The AAA is advising people traveling from Western New York to Ontario to expect slow going at the border.

"If you are traveling over the border, for the remainder of the week, expect delays and be prepared to show proper identification," Seufert said.

Chris Johnston, president of the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara, was working for the federal government in Seattle during the riot-plagued World Trade Organization meeting in 1999, and he attended the G-20 in Pittsburgh last fall.

"[Security] was intense at the hotel -- multiple checks," Johnston said of his experience in Pittsburgh. "Forget riding in a car; you can pretty much eliminate that."

Johnston said he wouldn't recommend that Western New Yorkers travel to Toronto, but he does have one suggestion:

"I would tell everybody from Toronto to come to Buffalo this weekend."

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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