Public safety is a concern as the NCAA Tournament comes to Newark.
Thousands of fans are pouring into Newark, N.J. for a weekend's worth of high-powered college basketball as the NCAA Regional Tournament finals kick off.
As teams practiced Thursday, there was concern among some about crime in the downtown area.
"I hear it's not real safe," Kentucky fan Nancy Gabbard told NBC New York while standing outside the Rock, the 4-year-old arena that is the NCAA's newest basketball tournament showpiece.
The Gabbards are staying at a Best Western in Newark about a mile away from the arena.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker dismissed concerns about safety.
"I would pit the safety and security of this part of our city --the downtown core -- to any other arena area in the country," Booker said Thursday.
He then tallied up the crime count for downtown so far this year.
"Zero major crimes in this area, zero for the year," Booker said.
There are several realities to crime in Newark.
Most of it, according to Police Director Garry McCarthy, is drug related.
Crime has also been coming down for more than a decade, even before Booker won election in 2006.
But when he brought McCarthy over from the NYPD, the crime rate saw another drop, and while the drop has essentially leveled off, the rate is still better than it was five years ago.
Entrepreneurs are starting to take notice.
Brian Karwoski co-founded the Brick City Bar & Grill across the street from the Rock.
"You always see a police car coming by, which is a good thing," said Karwoski.
He praised the police presence downtown, for both event and non-event nights.
Meanwhile, a new bar is going in next door, and ground will be broken next week on downtown's first new hotel in decades.
Perception is always hard to break, but Pam Colton of Bangor, Pa. had no worries as she waited in line to get inside Thursday's practice sessions at the Rock.
"I think it's very safe," Colton said.
The Prudential Center will host the East Regional Semifinals on Friday -- North Carolina vs. Marquette and Kentucky vs. Ohio State. The final will be held at the arena on Sunday.
Follow Brian Thompson on Twitter @brian4NY