RNC week business slow, yet prospects bright

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The Republican National Convention experience is getting mixed reviews from businesses who reported their fortunes, or lack thereof, to a Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce “listening session” which was held in partnership with the St. Paul Mayor’s Office.

Keys Cafe, 500 North Robert Street, St. Paul, was headquarters for Chris Matthews, the no-holds barred news reporter host of MSNBC’s Hardball, during the Republican National Convention early this month.

“We want to hear about your business experience, good and bad, during the Republican National Convention so that we can learn from your experience and use this information in the future,” Susan Kimberly, Vice President Economic Development told the September 17 meeting at the Chamber’s headquarters, 401 Robert St N, downtown St. Paul.

Kimberly and Mayor Chris Coleman’s representative, Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland, got an earful.

Moe Sharif, owner of Downtowner Woodfire Grill, 253 W. 7th St., said crowd control fencing and public perceptions of difficult access kept customers away. “There wasn’t enough marketing done to let people know what was available for visitors. There were bikes available on the riverfront specifically for convention use, but none were used,” he said.

Kathryn Severance of The European Table, 350 St. Peter Street, said, “We were told this would be the biggest event ever. We didn’t get hurt but we didn’t get the business. A lot of people were told to have extra inventory on hand.”

Her partner and husband, Jay Severance, added, “We participated in the GOParty card (a coupon promotion) but nothing came back. None of it generated any business.”

David Regan, Grand Avenue Business Association, said business was very slow for Grand Avenue businesses. “We advised our businesses to downsize after talking to city officials. We hired busses to bring people to Grand Avenue, but there was not much traffic,” he said.

Matt Anfang represents Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). He said, “The police did a great job. Several of our buildings sustained damage. What we should take from this is that downtown workers are in the skyways, and businesses should be marketing to them. The city has not responded to building owners who need help fixing their buildings.”

John Wolfe, Dixies On Grand, 695 Grand Av., said, “Good customers stayed away. Those that called said, ‘How do I get there with security?’ We should have been told delegates were being bused in and out (of the Xcel Center). We lost a great marketing opportunity for the city. The fact that the 4 a.m. bar closing happened very late in the game hurt us. Minneapolis was already booking parties.”

Michael Meyer, Wildside Caterers, said local businesses should have done more to market themselves. “There were a variety of publications being distributed during the RNC but I didn’t see the businesses advertising. For some reason we expected 40,000 people to find us. I understand things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to, but we can’t just not market,” Meyer said.

Russell Klein, of the French restaurant, Meritage, 410 Saint Peter St. said, “We didn’t have enough information; we didn’t know how things would flow or where the delegates would come in. We did have a great week, but on Sunday we thought we’d have a big day, but no one came because there was a media party in Minneapolis that we didn’t know about. And the Saturday before the convention was our slowest day ever.”

Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey represents Listening House and the Dorothy Day Center, which both serve the homeless and are within blocks of the arena. She said both “did fine during the convention. About 30 percent of the Listening House clients did go to Minneapolis for the week, but have since returned. Some worried that the homeless people would get pushed around, but good planning paid off. Several guests participated in the peaceful protests, not the violent ones.”

Kevin Geisen of Eagle Street Grill, 174 7th St W., said St. Paul business owners didn’t realize that the entire metro area hosted the convention, with delegates staying in Minneapolis, Eagan, Bloomington, Brooklyn Park and elsewhere. “When you spread out 40,000 people across the metro, it’s not a windfall of business for any one area,” he said.

Patrick Skinner, Unilev Management Corporation said extra security during the convention cost $20,000 for Wells Fargo Place and the nearby Town Square parking ramp. “I don’t say this as ‘poor us,’ but we and other businesses in downtown spent a lot of money to maintain the status quo,” he said.

Tom Whaley, Saint Paul Saints, put the ball back in the city’s court. “What plan is there to take what we gained from the RNC and make it work for us?”

Karolyn Kirchgesler, Saint Paul Convention and Visitors Association, said officials now are able to use the RNC convention as a marketing tool to attract more groups. “In the long run,” she said, “we’ll look back and say this is the best thing that could have happened in St. Paul.” She said her group has already booked four new events booking 14,000 hotel rooms. Saint Paul wouldn’t have gotten these events if not for the RNC, she said.

Lisa Cotter Metwaly, Q Kindness Café, 350 St. Peter, said, “We hosted conversations and made connections with the community.”

Carol Hunn Gregory, Keys Café said, “Having MSNBC book us really saved us. It was slow after the breakfast hour. We also had business from the protesters who were actually very nice.”

David Miller, Saint Paul Hotel said, “We had a great week, but the month prior was slow. It’s been a rough summer. But we also didn’t put all our eggs into one basket with the RNC. We’re thankful for the great work of the police.”

Jennifer Bisch, Artists Mercantile asked, “Where did the inflated expectations come from? Why did people think there would be so much business? We did well but it seems people were misled.”