Shops complain about lackluster GOP convention business, but St. Paul already seeing increased bookings

One St. Paul skyway shop made one sale to a Republican during the GOP’s national convention. And that customer used a bad credit card.

Other St. Paul businesses did better, but rarely as well as they expected, especially given the high expectations and predictions that thousands of visitors would pour into the city and spend money and — some dreamed — make everyone rich.

Those stories and others emerged this morning from a “listening session” held by the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. About 75 people attended, and many, but not all, had negative reports.

The big payoff will come later, city convention officials said, noting that the Republican National Convention put St. Paul on the international map as a place that can handle any kind of large event. Already, four new conventions have been booked because of the RNC success, they said.

The session was held because there’d been anecdotal evidence of poor results for many businesses, along with complaints from many businesses that they’d been misled into expecting high visitor traffic. Chamber officials wanted to let businesses vent and, in turn, try to learn something from the experience.

“If everyone had the best week of business in their lives, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Susan Kimberly of the Chamber staff. “But we’re hearing that the experience was decidedly mixed: Some had a great experience, some had a bad experience.

“We want to learn from the experience, and two things stand out: Ask better questions (and) be more conservative. If we’d had known the extent of the perimeter [where fences kept protesters and non-convention attendees far from the arena] and known more about the protesters, we would have done things differently.”

Some businesses did fine. Meritage, the trendy restaurant in the Hamm Building, had media celebrities mingling with regular customers just a few blocks from the Xcel Energy Center.

But even they were often baffled, said co-owner Russell Klein.

Too little information
“We didn’t have enough information; we didn’t know how things would flow or where the delegates would come in,” he said. “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.”

Even the St. Paul Hotel, which housed the Arizona and Nebraska delegations, had a steady busy in its high-end restaurant, The Saint Paul Grill, but hardly anyone went downstairs to the more casual dining of its M St. Cafe. 

Kathryn and Jay Severance, whose European Table shop in the Lowry Building skyway had the bad credit card for its one RNC sale, said skyway traffic died during the convention because downtown workers stayed home to avoid traffic, partly because of “the big prison they created” with fences around the arena.

“The only thing that saved me was that I didn’t buy a lot of extra inventory. People told me to buy gobs of inventory because so many people would come. But nobody did,” Kathryn Severance said.

Moe Sharif, owner of the Downtowner cafe on West Seventh Street, was just blocks from the arena but fencing and public perceptions of difficult access kept customers away. He thought that there wasn’t enough marketing done to let people know what was available for visitors.

Sharif said there were bikes available on the riverfront specifically for convention use, but he talked with attendants who said none were used.

Matt Anfang, director of the Building Owners and Managers Association, said that while police did a great job in protecting property, some buildings’ windows were broken by anarchists. “So far, the response to those building owners has been non-existent,” he said. “They’d appreciate some support from city to fix the damage.”

Homeless shelters operated smoothly
Listening House and the Dorothy Day Center, which both serve the homeless and are within blocks of the arena, did fine during the convention, said Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey of Listening House. About 30 percent of the Listening House clients did go to Minneapolis for the week, but have since returned, she said.

“We’d been working with the city and police since December 2006, because some were worried that the homeless people would get pushed around, and that good planning paid off,” she said.

“Several guests participated in the peaceful protests, not the violent ones,” she said.

Kevin Geisen, whose Eagle Street Grill is the closest to the arena and did well because it was booked by CNN for the convention, said many in St. Paul didn’t realize that the entire metro area hosted the convention, with delegates staying in Minneapolis, Eagan, Bloomington, Brooklyn Park and elsewhere.

Karolyn Kirchgesler, president of the Convention and Visitors Authority, said that the four new conventions that just signed up — “which would have been difficult to book without the RNC” — will bring 14,000 visitor-nights to St. Paul hotels.

“We’re sorry people didn’t do better business, but the reason we brought it here is for what’s coming to St. Paul in the long term. We’ll look back and say this was the best thing that ever happened,” she said.

St. Paul’s Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland said that, for all the challenges and problems and the two years of planning, she and the mayor have agreed that they’d gladly do it all over again.

“We wanted to put St. Paul on the world-class stage, to play with the big boys. We did it, and we did it very well. So yes, unequivocally we’d do it again,” she said.

She acknowledged, though, that some in the room might answer differently. “We’re not so Pollyanna-ish to say everything went well. Our hearts ache for the places that didn’t do well.”

For Susan Kimberly, the convention showed that St. Paul’s strength can be summed up in two words: “Rice Park.”

She said turned on the television one morning to hear Chris Matthews on MSNBC saying he was sitting in the most beautiful place in America.

“The impression we left on America was downright positive,” she said.

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