In April, the Kansas City task force chasing the 2016 Republican National Convention faced an unexpected problem.
Site selection officials concluded after visiting the city that the Sprint Center lacked sufficient suites for entertaining high-dollar donors. Could the task force help?
Architects and engineers scrambled. Yes, it quickly answered. For about $7 million, the city could and would build new hospitality space and suites, with good sight lines and floor access, in the downtown arena.
It wasn’t enough.
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Two months later, the party eliminated Kansas City from convention consideration. Last week, the GOP picked Cleveland for its gathering.
The decision sharply disappointed dozens of local boosters and politicians who had spent two exhausting, expensive years trying to land the lucrative meeting. When all the bills are paid, officials said last week, the area will have spent $850,000 to bring the convention here, including more than $250,000 from taxpayers.
But the rejection also meant the behind-the-scenes details of the city’s convention push would become public record. Last week, the city provided more than 5,000 pages of convention-related documents to The Star after a Sunshine Law request.
They reveal testy email exchanges about state laws and party invitations. They show local boosters considered giving the site selection committee tablet computers and autographed George Brett baseballs.
Kate Spade merchandise was rejected because it’s “all made in China and of the Committeewomen I know, they’re either sporting Chanel or something from Kohl’s,” a consultant wrote.
The memos cover hotel concerns, security problems and a debate about where to hold the final dinner for the site selection committee. They reveal the person behind the cover-up of a risque sign along the site committee’s travel route.
And they involve lots of talk about money.
Freebies and in-kind donations offered
Kansas City’s offer to the GOP included $7.3 million in free rent, electricity, insurance, engineering, housing and office space.
The commitment to improve the Sprint Center would have been added to that total.
“They want suites … for all the donor groups and VIPs,” fundraiser Linda Bond wrote April 26 after a visit from the RNC’s technical committee. RNC chairman Reince Priebus repeated the concern in at least two conversations at the time, the records show.
By May 5, an expansion outline was in place for 12 to 14 suites, costing between $5 million and $7.3 million. The task force notified site selection chairwoman Enid Mickelsen of the plan.
The source of the cash wasn’t made clear.
“Someone needs to to talk to Brenda (Tinnen, Sprint Center’s manager) and explore if (Sprint Center) will pay or cost share this build-out,” Bond wrote to Mayor Sly James’ office.
There were other in-kind promises on the table:
The publicly owned Bartle Hall convention center complex was offered rent-free, a donation valued at $1.8 million.
Kansas City Power & Light offered $1.5 million in free electricity, installation and equipment. (“KCP&L is in for the full ask,” mayoral chief of staff John McGurk said in a February email. “They said it may even be more.”)
The task force promised $1 million in free office space and housing. It also explored using dorm rooms at Rockhurst University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City and “refurbishing” the school board building at 12th and McGee streets as a media space.
That cost wasn’t calculated.
In-kind donations were just part of the picture, however. By early June, the committee had also obtained almost $20 million in cash commitments, the documents show.
Kansas, through Gov. Sam Brownback, promised $3.3 million, a commitment undisclosed to the public. (“An important project for the region and the nation!” Brownback’s email said.) Missouri lawmakers had publicly promised a $5 million contribution.
Cerner and Julia Irene Kauffman promised $1 million each. Cash donations would have been tax deductible.
David Glass and Clark Hunt promised $500,000 each on behalf of the Royals and Chiefs. Similar half-million-dollar cash promises came from Sprint, KCP&L, JE Dunn Construction, Burns & McDonnell, Black & Veatch, Garmin, Waddell & Reed and H&R Block.
The donations appear to have met the GOP’s financial goals, leaving the site selection committee “in awe,” one email said. The balance of the $55 million to $60 million needed for the host committee would come from national donors, the party was told.
The rest of the bid
The fundraising success allowed Kansas City’s host committee to focus on other details: security, hotels, transportation, entertainment for the site selection committee, even state laws.
Those considerations occasionally grew cranky.
In March, the mayor’s office became concerned that Missouri lawmakers might pass a bill restricting gun law cooperation between local and federal law enforcement officials.
“It would kill our bid because we cannot do the convention” without the help of federal authorities, mayoral aide Jay Hodges complained to the city’s lobbyists.
Relax, the lobbyists replied. The city could hardly ask Republican legislators for $5 million for the convention, then oppose their gun bill.
GOP leaders “want to win primaries and have to out crazy each other!” wrote lobbyist Sammy Panettiere.
Mayoral spokeswoman Joni Wickham said last week the language of the exchange was unfortunate and Panettiere regrets it.
But she added in an email that making “tactical legislative decisions without considering political realities simply wouldn’t make sense.”
The so-called gun nullification bill died on the last day of the session in May.
The committee’s proposal included over 100 area hotels, including space at the Legends complex in western Wyandotte County, in Independence, in Overland Park and by Kansas City International Airport.
The bid said dining and entertainment could be found in all those places. The hotel list was pared after the RNC said it might need fewer rooms than originally planned.
The city also compiled a list of 137 bars and restaurants open until 3 a.m.
Task force members worried a proposed 3/4-cent sales tax for transportation in Missouri would increase hotel taxes, raising them to among the highest hotel levies in the nation and endangering the city’s bid.
Eventually, they concluded, total hotel room costs would still be relatively low — an argument that appeared to work with some members of the site selection committee.
A June email discloses a conversation between a site selection delegate “who appears to be in our camp” and a local task force member. The task force member described the conversation to his colleagues:
“The Obama DNC” — referring to the Democratic National Committee’s well-received Denver convention in 2008 — “is a negative overhang for the RNC,” the task force member recalled the delegate saying. “Dallas has a number of political and physical problems. The hotel rooms are almost twice the cost of KC.”
The task force member said the delegate “was not very high on Cleveland.”
The site selection visit
The correspondence reveals a committee obsession with spiffing up the city for the June site selection visit. City Manager Troy Schulte and others asked for special attention to errant bushes, unexpected trash and burned-out lights in a parking facility.
The city’s 3-1-1 information call center was put on alert in case a committee member called with a question about a good place to eat.
And the documents clear up another mystery: who arranged the cover-up of the “Totally Nude” sign above an adult entertainment venue on Grand Boulevard.
It was task force member and taxi magnate Bill George, the records show. He told local planners the sign would read “Welcome RNC.”
It did not.
Mayor Sly James’ office was intricately involved in planning for the full site selection committee visit in June. Original plans called for the final dinner at Liberty Memorial, the documents show.
But “having an event at the Memorial is going to look bad,” aide Jay Hodges wrote, suggesting the KC Live district.
No, replied host committee member Jon Stephens.
“Cordish does parties well but not quality,” he wrote.
Nick Benjamin, executive director of the district, said Friday he took no offense from the discussion.
“We are also confident that Jon did not mean to suggest any disparagement of the high quality of the Power & Light district and its tenants,” Benjamin wrote.
An email from Stephens this past week said he was suggesting the difference between an outdoor dinner and a more formal indoor event.
The eventual choice: the Kauffman Performing Arts Center, with fireworks that required an expedited permit. That was followed by a visit to the Power & Light District.
None of this was cheap.
Local governments provided $265,000 in taxpayer cash for the recruitment effort, records show. Of that, $161,679 went to Global Prairie, a digital marketing and advertising firm.
That isn’t the full amount of the firm’s compensation, however. Stephens said private dollars will pay part of Global Prairie’s fee.
Other public expenses included $16,750 for a January reception in Washington and $14,641 to Lathrop & Gage for legal costs.
The committee spent $445 on popcorn and $990 on pins.
It also spent $12,975 in taxpayer money on a video production that included Kansas City police. At the time of the shoot, Mayor James said the officers were training for an unrelated event, but the emails show the officers were expected to be a part of the video.
The documents say Kansas City would provide 2,400 police officers working in 12-hour shifts during the seven days of the convention. Because only 1,400 officers suit up in the city, the rest of the force would have come from surrounding communities and the Highway Patrol in Kansas and Missouri, the task force said.
Cost estimates for the police presence were not provided. Convention organizers would rely on a $50 million federal security grant to defray most of those costs.
The Police Department also offered a small bit of humor as the process drew to a close.
Word of the city’s rejection on June 25 prompted a flurry of emails among the task force participants, each congratulating colleagues for their hard work and attention to detail.
“I am EXTREMELY proud of what we did and how we did it,” Mayor Sly James wrote.
Former mayor Kay Barnes sent condolences: “So sorry about the RNC decision. Drats!”
The final messages don’t suggest any one reason for the city’s failure to land the convention, but they do reveal a local desire to shape the public narrative.
“Nothing negative,” one public relations consultant wrote. “The reason given for the decision should be a lack of downtown hotels. Period. Please stick to this messaging. … Let’s all take care of one another. We’re still a team.”
The police may have had other ideas.
One department commander wrote: “Just think of the work we just got saved!!!”