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Gone with the wind? Hurricane blows away priceless Twin Cities marketing opportunities

By Doug Grow | Monday, Sept. 1, 2008
No “Today Show” appearance. No Katie Couric. No Charlie Gibson.

This morning’s event was going to be the first big marketing splash of the Republican National Convention for the Twin Cities. The first part of the Mayor’s Triathlon – a run near Minnehaha  Falls with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and delegates to the Republican National Convention – was going to be featured on the “Today Show.'”

Oh, the excitement. National television coverage of one of the loveliest spots in the Twin Cities.

Weeks before the convention, marketing pros such as Dave Mona had touted beautifully framed events like this as the sort of marketing opportunity money can’t buy. Images of the falls and the parks, Mona predicted, would plant subliminal messages into the national consciousness that would yield all sorts of positive benefits to the region.

But Hurricane Gustav blew away the opportunity – and the presence of megastar TV anchors like Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson. The mayor and delegates and assorted others did go ahead with the run. But the “Today Show” wasn’t around. Like all the other network shows this morning, it was focused on the Gulf Coast.

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“No question that was a loss,” said Rybak. “But Gustav has to be the focus.”

Mayor Rybak, others to keep on trying
But the ever-buoyant mayor will be back at it again on Tuesday, when he does the second part of his triathlon, a bike ride at the scenic Stone Arch Bridge. Wednesday, he’ll be doing the third leg of the event, a swim/kayak event “with the Minneapolis skyline as a backdrop.”

He’s not sure whether there’ll be national media exposure at either of those events.

“That will depend on Gustav,” he said.

But he’ll keep on trying. Besides, he could see the silver economic lining in the dark clouds of Gustav. “Look at all the people,” Rybak said, as he waved around the busy streets of St. Paul. “Just think about it. It’s Labor Day. Usually there wouldn’t be anyone here.”

Is Gustav washing away the opportunities that the Republican National Convention was supposed to bring? It depends on your point of view.

It was clear to anyone who picked up a newspaper or turned on a television set Monday that Gustav was THE news – except for some images of cops and protesters in conflict. And head thumping and broken store windows wasn’t exactly the subliminal message the Twin Cities sought when pushing for a political convention.

Another loser Monday was Erik Paulsen, the Republican candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s 3rd District.

Paulsen was going to have an opportunity to speak – for three minutes – to the Republican delegates at about 4:30 today. This is the sort of chance pols love, because it gives them exposure to people who might be moved to support a campaign.

Paulsen’s speech was vetted Sunday – “by a couple of guys in the back room; I didn’t know who they were,” he said. “They wanted me to make a few changes; I’d argue and we came to agreement.”

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But later that day, he heard that the first day of the convention had been truncated and that there’d no longer be a chance for him to give his speech.

“I was going to talk about how Congress is broken, things like that,” said Paulsen. “Now it’s canceled. It doesn’t matter that much to me.”

But the shortened first day schedule meant there were winners, too.

John McDonough, one of the owners of the Wild Tymes, a bar/restaurant on the oft-un-wild Seventh Place  Mall in downtown St. Paul, was thrilled with the economic impact of the RNC.

Convention cutback a boost for some
The establishment had a record Sunday night business, he said. Monday’s business, both inside and on the patio, was brisk, too. 

“It did get a little exciting for a while when the (protest) parade was ending,” he said. “There were a few people running around, but it’s all settled down” in his end of town.

Actually, McDonough loved the way Monday was breaking down. The protest parade was supposed to end around 2 p.m. but went later (“protesters eat and drink, too,” he said). The Labor Day event on Harriet Island was supposed to end a few hours after that, and with the early end to the Republican convention Monday, he figured his establishment would be full throughout the night.

The only clouds on his day were St. Paul city officials. McDonough refused to pay the $2,500 fee that the city was charging for bars that wanted to remain open until 4 a.m.

“They weren’t even going to allow us to serve outside after 2,” he said. “We would have had to move everyone off the patio and inside. Then, the fire marshal would have come and said we were overcrowded. We’ve already had three city officials in here today checking things out. I think they want to make sure that nobody in St. Paul does too much business or has too much fun.”

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Ah, but where there are winners, there always seem to be losers.

Business appeared to be as dead on the West Seventh Street side of the Xcel Center as it was brisk on the downtown side. The way the security perimeter was set up, it was virtually impossible to get from downtown St. Paul to West Seventh.

Iconic Cosetta’s restaurant, for example, had set up a huge tent for outdoor eating for the overflow crowds that were expected. But there were only a handful of customers. Management at Cosetta’s would not comment on the security precautions.

It is, of course, too early to draw conclusions on Gustav’s impact on the convention.

The host committee of the convention was holding on to its prediction that the convention would produce a $160 million economic impact on the region.

But the big picture was blurrier. The major networks had sent their first-team anchors to the Gulf Coast, leaving Minnesota with bench players, at least for the first day of the convention.

It was unclear what impact the hurricane would have on the convention coverage of such national newspapers as the New York Times. At least Monday morning, editors and reporters weren’t sure if Gustav would ripple all the way to St. Paul.

A sign greeted those who entered the Times huge workspace – which comes complete with two refrigerators – in the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. “Welcome to the New York Times St. Paul Bureau. We don’t know where we’re going and we don’t know where we’ve been. … Directions available.”

Not surprisingly, delegates were in agreement with the decision of higher-ups to shorten the first day’s business.

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“Our hearts and prayers are with those people,” said Sandy Golden, a Texas delegate from Alvin, near Houston. As she talked, her husband, Ron, spoke on his cell phone with a neighbor about weather conditions back home, just 10 miles from the coast.

“The sun’s shining,” he informed his wife.

In fact, Gustav is having little real impact on the convention.

“Mrs. Bush spoke at our breakfast this morning,” she said. “She told us how sorry her husband is that he can’t be here.”

Given the fact that the entire Monday night program was canceled, what will delegates such as the Goldens do?

“Shop,” she said.

“Eat,” he said.

“We’re here to do important work, and we will get that done,” she said.

Gustav’s impact?

“We’re not going to do anything different,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.

He noted that a number of publications, such as the New York Times on Sunday, already had done major stories about the region.

“We planned on just about every contingency – except this,” said Coleman.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.