Political Power

Before the red, white, and blue confetti streams down and the official nominees are announced, national Democratic and Republican convention host cities Denver and St. Paul are busy preparing for an invasion of delegates, media, protesters, and one potential future president. Political conventions confer the media spotlight, political star power, and a chance for host cities to show off on a global stage. But for as many benefits as political conventions bring to the local economy and in attention to local issues, there are a thousand concerns over safety and security, social responsibility, and putting the city's best foot forward.

"We have more rooms than has ever been booked in a single room block," says Rich Grant, communications director for the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. "There are lots of difficult things that need to be done at the last minute."

In August Denver plays host to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, 100 years after the last national political convention was held in the Mile-High City. CVB officials attribute a $7 billion investment in convention and tourism facilities made during the 1990s and early 2000s for the win. With the drama of a prolonged primary season, attendance estimates for the DNC have spiked from an original 35,000 to 50,000. An estimated 17,200 hotel rooms will be needed for conventioneers, and all those delegates are expected to bring $160 million to the state.

The profits will be hard won. Security needs are high, and Denver is paying $225 per hour—$9,000 per week—to Ellis M. Stanley Sr., an emergency management veteran who has been hired as head of emergency management for the convention.

Anticipating that the primary race might extend to the convention, hoards of media members signed up to attend well in advance. With some 17,000 national and international media representatives attending—7,000 more than attended the Winter Olympics in the Rocky Mountains two decades ago—it's a tremendous opportunity to show Denver off to the world, Grant says.

Though perhaps less dramatic politically, the 2008 Republican National Convention will bring plenty of excitement September 1-4 to the 18,000-seat Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN. About 45,000 visitors will fill 20,000 hotel rooms at nearly 100 properties in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, making the group among the largest the Twin Cities have ever hosted. What's more, special events are being planned at more than 70 venues.

There is plenty for delegates to do while visiting the Twin Cities. Minneapolis' museum and performing arts scene has heated up in the past three years, following the infusion of a half-billion dollars in new arts infrastructure along the Mississippi waterfront. The new buildings were designed by internationally recognized architects and commissioned by the city's arts organizations. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts celebrated its grand reopening in June 2007; its three-story atrium culminates in a third-floor reception hall that accommodates 300 guests.

And perhaps some of the 30,000 protesters expected to arrive in the Twin Cities for the RNC will be able to enjoy the local arts scene after a busy day of marches. Groups of protesters have already announced their intentions to close down the bridges leading to the convention center, and city officials are considering distributing protest permits to manage the contentious assemblies. Both St. Paul and Denver are already being sued by a range of protest groups for their published plans on handling demonstration routes during the conventions.

Both convention cities are also incorporating sustainable, "green" policies at local facilities. St. Paul city officials are stationing 1,000 bicycles around town for use by visitors as an alternative to cars, sponsored by the Humana Inc. health insurance company in cooperation with Bikes Belong, a cycling advocacy group. The plan is to bring the bicycles from Denver, where they'll have been used for the DNC the previous month.

Denver organizers plan on having the greenest convention in DNC history, with a comprehensive calculation of the event's carbon footprint to use in reducing and offsetting emissions. Sustainable planning principles and environmentally friendly policies have been incorporated into the convention planning offices, and energy conservation measures are being used throughout all official convention venues. The Pepsi Center is installing a permanent solar array that will help keep the lights on for delegates this August and for future events.

With all the complications a political convention brings to a city, the benefits are hard to ignore. Rochester, MN made history this year by winning both Republican and Democratic state party conventions, and—to make things even more interesting—hosted the conventions on back-to-back weekends in late May, early June. The CVB successfully bid for the Democratic convention based on previous conventions the party had held in the city, and then launched a separate, successful campaign for the Republican convention, which was up for grabs after being bumped out of the Twin Cities for the national party convention.

"For two weekends, most of the state's and some regional media [came] here; it's a great benefit. All of our policymakers were here, and we showcased issues [important to the city]," said Brad Jones, executive director of the Rochester Convention & Visitors Bureau.

However, many political convention planners are volunteers, or may have no experience working on a large convention with lots of last-minute needs, adds Lori Odegard, sales manager for the CVB. The CVB works with groups to keep convention facilities and local restaurants open if sessions were to run later than expected.

"With political conventions there are certain things that are straightforward, while other things are just wild cards," Jones says. "Everything is ratcheted up a couple of notches because of the media spotlight. We don't want anything to go wrong."

Originally published July 1, 2008

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