Rewards of a political convention are wrapped in risks

04/05/2014 11:49 PM

04/05/2014 11:49 PM

Bringing the 2016 Republican National Convention to Kansas City would mean millions of dollars, invaluable publicity and a chance for a newly vibrant community to pop its buttons before the world.

That’s the promise.

It would also mean a beefy and expensive police presence, potential confrontations with disruptive anarchists and pesky logistical hurdles for hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents.

That’s the threat.

Put the two together, veterans of past gatherings say, and you get reality: A national political convention is dramatically more complex, and challenging, than familiar events like an all-star game or a regional basketball tournament.

“It’s not the Super Bowl,” said Tom Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney who co-chaired a commission that examined violent confrontations at the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn.

“Super Bowls are not a political statement.”

Kansas City officials are confident any potential problems are worth the reward of a convention. As they prepare for the final lobbying push to land the event, though, they’re quietly discussing the challenges such a gathering would bring.

The price of fun

It would bring Super Bowl-like benefits, Kansas City officials believe.

More than 45,000 people would probably attend — visitors who would stay in hotels, shop, eat and drink at restaurants, and visit museums and attractions.

A national political convention would provide temporary construction, installation and catering jobs and additional local tax revenue and give the city worldwide publicity of incalculable worth.

It would also be fun. The city would play host to national political figures, celebrities and cable TV chatfests, while parties in the Power Light District would last into the early morning.

Parades and people would stroll through the summer streets. Big-time concerts are possible. Maybe fireworks.

And most Kansas Citians would be able, at least to some degree, to participate.

“We’re not asking (residents) to move out of their homes. We’re not asking them to give up a child,” said Mayor Sly James.

“We’re asking them to allow a bunch of people to come in from outside of our city, spend a bunch of time here, drop a bunch of money here. … That’s not a huge sacrifice.”

Yet James’ belief in the dollar-and-cents benefit of a national political convention isn’t universal.

Some businesses would probably do well. In 2012, cabbies, car rental agencies, street vendors and florists made good money, according to a study by a professor at the University of Tampa. Airport vendors sold an extra $1.7 million of stuff.

Other retailers, though, actually saw their business drop during the convention, the study found. Bookstores and flea markets slumped. So did clothing stores. Even bars took a hit.

Local residents, it turns out, often stop spending their money when conventioneers arrive.

“Residents of Tampa Bay likely changed their daily routines in an effort to avoid the inconvenience associated with the 2012 RNC,” the study explained.

And the mixed-blessing nature of a national convention won’t be limited to the shopping mall.

The GOP requires host city hotels to sign contracts placing at least 90 percent of their available first-class rooms in the hands of the convention committee. That could mean turning down some summertime tourists and smaller conventions during the lucrative summer season.

And while the city’s hotel occupancy rate is expected to jump 20 points during the convention, GOP officials and delegates must be charged the “most favorable rates” for their rooms. Hotel meeting rooms and ballrooms must be provided rent-free.

Some Kansas City hotel operators initially balked at the requirements, although convention planners say their concerns have been addressed.

Convention planners are urging Kansas Citians to look beyond the direct economic implications of the convention. More important, they say, is the international publicity generated by the gathering.

A successful convention can bring additional business for years after delegates leave town.

“As far as the growth of tourism and conventions in Kansas City, every Kansas Citian should care,” said Jon Stephens of the Kansas City Convention Visitors Association.

But on that point too, the evidence is mixed. In December, The Charlotte Observer reported bookings for that city’s convention center actually dipped following the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

The bars and restaurants in the Power Light District would probably receive a significant boost from the convention, money that might reduce the ongoing taxpayer subsidy for the area.

Bar owners in other entertainment districts think they would do well too.

“Westport would be excited to have the Republican National Convention come to Kansas City,” said Bill Nigro, who works with tavern owners in the district.

Headaches aplenty

Westport — and most other entertainment venues — would benefit most because of the distance from downtown.

Kansas City officials have already started talking about downtown’s security perimeter, which would probably be heavily fenced and guarded during the days leading up to the convention and during the weeklong gathering.

One early guess: More than 70 downtown blocks would have to be closed, from Charlotte Street to Washington Street, from Ninth Street to Truman Road.

Some parts of the downtown interstate loop might also be closed to traffic for a week or more. Parking would be a nightmare — or nonexistent.

Downtown workers may want to start planning their 2016 vacations if Kansas City is awarded the convention.

“It’s going to have an impact on Kansas City in terms of getting into and out of downtown,” said City Manager Troy Schulte. “I think the city can handle it. But, yeah, it’s going to be inconvenient.”

In fact, Schulte said, the city is already talking about moving City Hall’s functions elsewhere during the convention because the building would probably fall inside the secured area. The Jackson County Courthouse would be difficult to reach as well.

The city might also be asked to pass special ordinances to accommodate the convention.

In 2012, Tampa’s mayor proposed a “Clean Zone” ordinance that closed some city parks overnight and banned “knives, axes, mace and clubs” in them.

“A large portion of downtown Tampa was cordoned off for at least a week,” remembered Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd, a 2012 GOP delegate.

The Tampa proposal reflected a concern common to all convention cities. The event attracts hundreds of protesters and activists, some intent on disrupting the proceedings. Those problems are exacerbated when a convention center is downtown, as it is in Kansas City.

Because St. Paul’s 2008 convention was held downtown, the city’s post-convention study found, “law enforcement was required to protect a convention, downtown businesses, residents, peaceful protesters and traffic from a swarming group of anarchists all at the same time within close proximity.”

The city would probably get some help in beefing up security. In past conventions, the host city has received $50 million in federal funds for security equipment, training and personnel costs.

Much of the special equipment would remain in the region after the convention — a bonus, officials believe, for the host community.

But preparing for the gathering would take months of work.

It would almost certainly involve local police from surrounding cities and counties, many working overtime.

That can be a challenge, Heffelfinger said.

“It’s a heck of a lot more difficult to manage 17 or 18 departments, with different structures, different systems, different command, different egos than just your own,” he said.

There are other potential issues for planners to consider.

Buses will have to be brought in from other cities.

Communications companies will have to build intricate digital networks, potentially disrupting traffic for months before the convention.

Volunteers will have to be found, trained, vetted.

The airport may get a coat of paint, or possibly something more.

Yet managing security — and the expectations of delegates, observers and residents — may be the single most important factor in how a national convention is conducted, and perceived.

Arlene Krings was a GOP delegate from Kansas who attended the 2008 convention in St. Paul and the 2012 gathering in Tampa.

She enjoyed both experiences, but she remembered the transportation and security headaches in Florida and the police scuffles in Minnesota.

“It’s kind of like crime,” she said. “It can happen anywhere.”

Same old stress

Mayor Sly James insists the convention is worth far more than the problems it might cause.

“There is something special about being selected,” he said.

Whether Kansas City will be selected for the convention won’t be known until later this summer.

Of the six cities still in contention for the GOP event, only Denver has hosted a national convention since 1988.

Tampa, St. Paul and Charlotte all passed up a bid this year.

If Kansas City grabs the brass ring, though, Heffelfinger has some advice:

Let other cities be your guide.

“Everybody sort of assumes ‘we can do it differently,’ 

” he said. “And what you realize is you really can’t. The stressers that you’re going to face in conducting a convention in Tampa or St. Paul or Kansas City are going to repeat themselves.”

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