Kansas City makes pitch for the 2016 Republican convention

Fresh off a trip to Boston and meetings with Republicans, Mayor Sly James likes Kansas City’s surprisingly upbeat prospects for landing the 2016 GOP National Convention.

But he worries about the lack of a major, 1,000-room downtown convention hotel.

“It certainly doesn’t help, I’ll say that,” James said in an interview following last week’s trip. “The convention hotel is something that we talked about and talked about and talked about. We don’t have it.”

Local promoters of bringing the Republicans here exactly 40 years after the historic 1976 convention in Kansas City insist that the lack of a major convention hotel is no deal-breaker. In fact, they say Republicans are far more concerned about transportation following a major problem with last year’s national convention in Tampa, Fla.

On the convention’s first night, confusion over security and transportation systems resulted in Missouri and Kansas delegates — as well as others from around the country — arriving back at their hotels at 3 and 4 a.m.

That transportation has bubbled to the top of the GOP’s needs list plays into Kansas City’s strengths, said Cathy Nugent, who’s spearheading the local drive to land the convention.

“The biggest hurdle for every city out of that meeting is transportation,” Nugent said. “Can we get our delegates to the convention center and out in a timely manner and have them on buses and back to the hotel in about 30 minutes.”

It’s huge that Kansas City lacks causeways and heavy rush-hour traffic and can tout the still-new Sprint Center where the gathering would be staged, she said.

“We actually have a better shot of anyone with this (transportation) issue,” Nugent said.

That Kansas City’s delegation left Boston and the summer meeting of the Republican National Committee convinced that the city has a shot is unexpected in itself. Many local insiders had been insistent that Kansas City faced too many drawbacks, with the lack of a major downtown hotel ranking as only one of them.

The city appears to lack some of the big-time amenities that other recent host cities, including New York and Los Angeles, offer, such as new-style mass transit. (If all goes according to plan, Kansas City’s short downtown streetcar system could be up and running by convention time.)

Politically, both Missouri and Kansas also are regarded as likely to vote Republican for president in 2016, meaning that the area lacks the swing-state profile that attracted the Republicans to Florida for their 2012 convention and the Democrats to North Carolina the same year.

But James and former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Wichita point out that Kansas City’s central location is a big advantage. No delegate will face a six-hour coast-to-coast flight.

And Nugent’s team started organizing early, which has afforded the city a leg up over other early competitors, including Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and perhaps Memphis, Tenn. The organizing included what was reported to be a well-received, jazz-themed reception in Boston last week that featured James belting out a rendition of “Kansas City.”

Dan Schwartz, the finance chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, was quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal as saying that Kansas City is Vegas’ chief competitor for the 2016 gathering’s 50,000 attendees.

“People have dedicated a lot of time and energy to this,” James said of Nugent and her team. “They’ve gone pretty far down the road to getting this done.”

That includes pursuing the $50 million needed in upfront money to stage what’s expected to be a three-day extravaganza. Nugent said the host finance committee, led by Linda Bond, wife of former Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, already has commitments for more than half of that money.

Police Chief Darryl Forté has started reviewing security challenges the convention would pose and has already talked to other former host cities, Nugent said.

“He’s all over this,” she said.

But the competition will be stiff, organizers acknowledge, and insider politics among leading Republicans at the national level could well sway the choice of a host city no matter how well-organized Kansas City is. Although Nugent downplays the need for a convention hotel, James didn’t sound convinced after his visit to Boston.

Kansas City needs an additional 3,000 rooms downtown to more successfully compete for big-time conventions, he said. That’s the equivalent of two or three downtown convention hotels.

Although he’s advocated for such a hotel for months, the city is not close to signing any agreements, much less breaking ground. In theory, there’s still time for a major new downtown hotel to be built, but the timetable is growing tighter by the month, he said.

“It is what it is,” James said of Kansas City’s predicament. “We’re trying to do the best with with what we’ve got.”

And what Kansas City has is 32,542 rooms in the metropolitan area. Charlotte, host of last year’s Democratic convention, has 31,675, according to statistics from the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association. Denver, host of the 2008 Democratic convention, has 41,000 rooms; the Tampa area has 66,000 rooms; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, host of the 2008 GOP Convention, has about 38,000.

But the overall number of rooms may not be a determining factor, Nugent said. What the Republicans sought in their request for proposals for the last two conventions was actually less — 15,000 rooms for delegates and alternates.

She said the Republican National Committee was debating whether to require 15,000 rooms or 17,500. “Either way, we can do it,” Nugent said.

In Charlotte, the Democrats did not require a major downtown hotel in their bid, said Laura Hill of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

Nugent said Republicans also did not require the existence of such a hotel at either of their last two conventions.

The formal request for proposals is expected to be issued this fall, she said. A nine-member site selection committee is to be established in the next couple of weeks with the final selection expected sometime in the first quarter of 2014.

Traditionally held in August or September, the GOP National Convention in 2016 could be advanced to June or July, GOP officials have said, to give the nominee earlier access to general-election funds and shorten the primary nominating period.

“One of the the things I want to make sure people understand is, we are holding our own in this conversation,” James said. “It’s not like we’re just the poor little lost kids. We’re players here, and we have a shot.”