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Primping wraps up for Twin Cities’ big welcome party

From a perch in the corner of Rice Park, the F. Scott Fitzgerald statue overlooks setup work on the MSNBC stage.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
From a perch in the corner of Rice Park, the F. Scott Fitzgerald statue overlooks setup work on the MSNBC stage.

The primping is nearly done.

The flowers are planted, streets swept and welcome banners unfurled as the Twin Cities prepares to greet 45,000 visitors arriving this weekend for the Republican National Convention.

Crews picked up litter on the freeways Thursday while window washers brandished squeegees at City Hall.

That’s all for the invited guests.

An unknown number of protesters will be here, too. For them, it’s barriers, portable toilets and, if they’re arrested, a bag lunch.

And members of the media?

They’re invited — and rushing in with microphones at the ready. A giant stage for MSNBC now fills Rice Park, dwarfing the maiden in the fountain. An even bigger presence is the Fox News tent in the parking lot across West Seventh Street from the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild except for next week, when it’ll house the GOP wildness. CNN is setting up camp in the Eagle Street Grill, the closest restaurant to the X.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was in Denver earlier this week, checking out preparations there and looking for any details officials here might have overlooked. He was impressed with the Colorado hospitality but says we’ll do even better.

“As good a show as Denver put on, we’ll out do them tenfold,” he said Wednesday at a business opening.

Tenfold? I asked. Isn’t that raising expectations a bit high?

“Well, maybe six-fold,” he said. And he’s a Democrat.

Just being there
But there is a palpable sense of pride on St. Paul streets, and a feeling that it’s going to be really cool to be in the midst of such a well-publicized national event.

“Republican or Democrat, this is a must-see event, and I can’t wait for all the people and excitement to hit downtown St. Paul,” said Roger Schultz, who owns the oddly paired Dunn Bros. Coffee Shop and Northwest Opticians at Wabasha and Fifth streets, just blocks from the arena.

Anticipating bigger crowds of eaters — if not eyeglass buyers — during the convention, Schultz has converted one of his eye exam rooms into a temporary cooler, to keep extra meat and beverages ready for sale.

“But even if it doesn’t increase sales at all, it’s going to be fun to be here for a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said.

Shop ’til they leave
Still, one of the big hopes for community organizers is that the delegates and visitors will shop and eat. The Mall of America plans a slate of events for visitors, including a fashion show and “Kids Stump the Delegates Game Show.” The mall even has a “Reporter’s Retreat,” so visiting journalists can check e-mail and enjoy refreshments.

On the other end of Rice Park, the statue of hockey coach Herb Brooks is oveshadowed by a crane adding decorative lights outside RiverCentre, which will house media operations.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
On the other end of Rice Park, the statue of hockey coach Herb Brooks is oveshadowed by a crane adding decorative lights outside RiverCentre, which will house media operations.

St. Paul hopes to capitalize (so to speak) by filling some of its empty storefronts with shops on short-term leases. The hope is that visitors will have more opportunities to shop, and that store owners will like being downtown so much that they’ll stay long after the delegates leave. (It also helps the city’s downtown avoid a ghost-town appearance.)

In the long-empty and cavernous former bank lobby in the Alliance Bank Center, formerly the Fifth Street Center, there’s a world market, with vendors selling clothing, linens, jewelry and accessories from many countries. And there’s an artists’ market in a nearby skyway space, with displays for a nature photographer, design-your-own glassware, furniture and flowers pressed into trays, joined by an Avon display and someone selling weight-loss products.

There are 19 new leases under this Red Carpet initiative, also known as fill-the-storefronts-for-the-Republicans.

Speaking their minds
Protesters will have many opportunities to speak their minds, but not as close to the action as they’d like. A planned anti-war march from the Capitol to the Xcel Energy Center and back will swing by the arena, but it’s not likely delegates will notice. The protests are, after all, often more for the media than the delegates.

City officials say there will be portable toilets at the Capitol and at the public viewing site, in a triangle-shaped park-area across West Seventh Street from the X, very close to the Dorothy Day homeless shelter.

In the viewing area, there’s a soapbox stage, where folks signed up in advance to air their views. Officials prefer to call it the Open Forum Stage. Among those signed up:  former Gov. Wendell Anderson, Planned Parenthood, Pro-Life Action Ministries, Maryland congressional candidates and CODEPINK, a women-initiated peace and social justice group. The entire list is here.

Limited access to convention area
Access to the immediate convention area will be limited; even getting around parts of  downtown St. Paul will be challenging. There’s a no-go zone about a block around Xcel Energy Center in each direction; you’ll need credentials to get inside. No vehicles can go in or through there, either, and that includes bikes and strollers.

The logistics of the zone will make it tough to walk from the main area of downtown to the West Seventh Street shops and restaurants.

The security barriers encompassing the zone will go up late today. And two freeway exits — from I-94 to Fifth Street, and I-35E to Kellogg Boulevard, will be closed, starting at 6 p.m. today.

Many parking ramps and lots in the immediate vicinity of the arena are closed; regular parkers have been shifted to other downtown-area lots. That will put added pressure on parking throughout downtown for the week.

The biggest protest march will be on Monday, Labor Day, when most downtown offices are closed; that’s led city officials to predict that most business activity in the majority of downtown will be unaffected. Let’s hope.

From the public safety aspect — or delegate protection duty, some might say — St. Paul has recruited help from around the state and the nation, to beef up its police presence with 3,500 officers. That’s not counting the Secret Service agents.

St. Paul’s Fire Department has extra fire engines waiting in the wings near the arena, with new fire-retardant foam.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community has lent the city a mobile medical and incident command center, and it’s already parked nearby.

Helpers aplenty
To help guide the 2,380 delegates around town, a local host committee (separate from the Republican groups operating the convention) recruited 10,000 volunteers. They’ve been trained and will be scattered throughout town starting this weekend.

At giant parties in Minneapolis — a media party Saturday along the riverfront and the delegate party Sunday at the Convention Center — will feature volunteers wearing black shirts, for an elegant look. Starting Monday, we’ll see the volunteers in white polo shirts, with host committee and General Mills logos.

Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politic and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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