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GOP convention extremes: Nearby businesses found either boom or bust

Early assessments of the economic impact of the Republican National Convention are mixed as I talked to business owners and walked miles and miles through downtown St. Paul over the past five days.

It appears  that some — like Meritage restaurant, Heimie’s Haberdashery, the Grill at The St. Paul hotel and Pazzaluna — did blockbuster business. All are within blocks of the convention action in Rice Park and the Xcel Energy Center.

But others foundered. At nearby Sakura Restaurant, Myoko Omori, owner of the standout sushi place, said that officials had “promised a storm of customers. I’m waiting for the storm.”

Mayor Chris Coleman acknowledged that some places didn’t do as well as everyone had hoped, but he believes the long-term positive effects of the convention will lead to much more business for everyone in the city.

Although some business owners said they felt misled about the expected influx of business, others noted that it should have been clear from the layout of the events — and the reality that most delegates were being bused into town from faraway hotels — that many places would never benefit.

Restaurants just west of GOP arena disappointed
Perhaps most disappointed are some restaurants closest to the Xcel Energy Center to the west.

The 8-foot-high, brown, metal-mesh fences came down early Friday, which meant it seemed safe to venture into that area.   

The fences, part of the security perimeter for the convention, had enclosed the Xcel Energy Center like a prison camp. And they gave the impression to many that you couldn’t get to the businesses on West Seventh, in the Chestnut Street area. The fences extended along West Seventh west from the arena, all the way to Chestnut, but only in the street: the sidewalks leading to the business were, in fact, open.

Add the presence of police and National Guard soldiers, and it often did seem like you couldn’t get there from here. Few realized that you actually could.

Officials fenced off the arena to protect 2,380 Republican delegates, who gathered Monday through Thursday to formally nominate Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin to run for president and vice president.

Threats to the buses bringing delegates from hotels in Minneapolis, Bloomington and other suburbs led authorities to take major precautions around the arena.

Businesses were told in advance that there would be a no-go perimeter — accessible only to those with credentials for the convention — but the exact layout of the fencing, and the way it cut off such places as Cossetta’s and Blink Bonnie restaurants, wasn’t known until the very last.

Downtowner owner Moe Sharif was often seen standing on the sidewalk outside his restaurant, never criticizing anyone but plainly wishing to see the expected torrent of customers. “It’s been slow, but we’ll move on,” he said.

Adding to the access problem was the fact that people who live or work downtown east of the arena couldn’t walk to the West Seventh area without taking a mile (or longer) trek around the fencing. Not many did.

Most delegates bused into and out of downtown quickly
And the delegates, except the minority staying in downtown St. Paul hotels, tended to take their buses from the hotels to the arena right before the sessions started, and generally hopped on the buses immediately afterward to head back. Out of St. Paul.

Dave Cossetta, owner of the popular Cossetta’s Italian eatery and grocery, put up a giant tent in his parking lot and placed dozens of tables outside, expected big crowds. They were rarely filled, an unusual situation for a place that has long lines for pizza and mostaccioli for lunch every day, even weekends.

“Cossetta’s suffered some hardships,” Cossetta said this morning, as workers cleared the last of the tent and apparatus out of the lot. “But we’ll survive.”

He said he felt especially sorry for businesses that geared up heavily, or even opened specifically for the convention, based on city projections of the great business that would be generated. “It didn’t happen,” he said.

Wally Wescott, whose family runs an antique shop on West Seventh and Chestnut, was just on the edge of the fenced-off area. He said business was “OK,” but he said the media exposure was great. The shop ended up on three television programs and son Kurt was in USA Today.

“Some people from the Twin Cities came down to see what was happening, and saw us and said they’d never realized we were here,” Wally Westcott said.

The next 90 days will show if that exposure translates into sales, he said.

Back on the east side of the arena, the Original Coney Island, closed since 1994, reopened just for the convention and did better than owner Mary Ellen Arvanitis expected. But she only opened the bar side of the historic 150-year-old building, not the side where her family served the tasty hot dogs for generations.

Pazzaluna and The Grill, very near the arena and the St. Paul Hotel, where the Arizona delegation stayed, seemed busy every evening.

But the Dunn Bros. coffee shop at Wabasha and Fifth streets didn’t see expected sales. Employees said they had ordered lots of extra milk and cream and other food items, but when the hordes of customers didn’t show up by Tuesday, they planned to send it back.

Tiny shops generally left out, too
Also suffering were tiny shops and vendors that opened specifically for the convention in empty storefronts, mostly in the skyway several blocks from the arena. Hoping to capitalize on the influx of visitors, many saw few,  if any, delegates during the event.

And because many downtown workers took vacation or worked from home during the convention to avoid crowds and the hubbub, those new shops, and many existing retail and food stores, didn’t even have their regulars to count on.

Downtown traffic, both cars and pedestrians, seemed way below normal weekday levels, except for the area right around the arena and Rice Park.

Mayor Coleman, in summarizing the city’s reaction to the event, praised police for keeping anarchists from disrupting the convention, and he noted that some businesses did quite well.

“Not everyone benefited,” he said. “But this is a long-term initiative.”

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