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St. Paul spiffs up for the Republican National Convention

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A birdhouse set up by a St. Paul animal control
A birdhouse set up by a St. Paul animal control.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The powers that be in St. Paul were tired of hearing that downtown was dead, so they decided to revive it.

So far, 19 businesses have taken the city up on its offer to come into downtown, at least for the week of the convention.

Pigeon poop litters a St. Paul sidewalk
The city is trying to reduce its pigeon population humanely, rather than trapping and killing. But pigeons will still be around next week for the RNC.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

One of the new retailers is Stacey Finnegan, she owns the Italian-style boutique il Vostro in upscale Edina, and just opened up her second location in St. Paul. 

"This is a new line that I just picked up," Finnegan said. "It's called Avant Garde, it's a jewelry line."

Finnegan said stylish celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Eva Longoria have been known to wear the dresses she sells.

Finnegan said a lot of women were surprised to see a store like hers open up in downtown St. Paul. 

"People from downtown St. Paul just aren't accustomed to having something other than like a Macy's or a traditional shopping experience," Finnegan said. "Here, what we have to offer is one-of-a-kind pieces. So it will probably just take some time for them to understand what they can find here."

Stacey Finnegan, owner of il Vostro boutique
Stacey Finnegan, owner of il Vostro boutique, set up a new shop in St. Paul for the Republican National Convention.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Not only will there be more places to shop downtown, but there'll be more time to drink. At last count, eight St. Paul bars have decided to stay open until 4 a.m.

City officials said they're not trying to cast the illusion of liveliness during the Republican convention. They just want to be hospitable. And they want to look good.

Workers have spent this week cleaning out the fountain at Rice Park, where MSNBC will be broadcasting. And the nearby downtown library has begun spraying their bushes green. It's kind of like a hair dye, for plants.

From one corner of the park, hot dog vendor George Weckman has watched all the frantic primping for the Republicans.

Il vostro sells handbags and women's clothing
Il vostro, owned by Stacey Finnegan, sells handbags, jewelry and women's clothing.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"Well I think it's really nice that we fixed it up for 'em," Weckman said. "It did get the park finally fixed up. I don't think they would have done that for me or you."

Some of the dressing-up goes way beyond cosmetic. City crews have welded shut manholes and are using cables to tie down metal tree grates. 

That's to prevent rioters from throwing objects into any of those pretty storefronts.

The city is even tackling its downtown pigeon population. Last year, Mayor Chris Coleman was so disturbed by the bird droppings on downtown sidewalks that he resolved to clean up the mess before the convention. Officials have put animal-control supervisor Bill Stephenson on pigeon watch.

"They just didn't like the aesthetics," Stephenson said. "You can see where it drips on the sidewalk and could end up dripping on somebody's head."

So, the city built the pigeons a roosting place on top of a downtown building. It looks like a primitive dollhouse, and a large feeder pours out pellets containing an oral contraceptive. City interns have been confiscating the unhatched eggs and replacing them with fake ones.

But the experiment has been slow going, and on this day, two eggs in the pigeon house have hatched into baby pigeons.

"Two more," Stephenson said. "Yup, we missed a couple eggs."

Officials said not only will downtown look different next week, but it will sound different. This is a town where you never run into a street musician. But the mayor's office has teamed up with the McNally Smith College of Music. They're asking bands to play for tips on downtown sidewalks.

One of them is the reggae group Dred I Dread. Lead singer Peewee Dread - his real name is Darius Collins - grew up in New Orleans, where busking, playing music for tips, is a way of life. 

"There's a guy in New Orleans called Bucket Man," Collins said. "He'll chase you around with his bucket. He'll have some beads strapped to it. He'll say, 'Hey, I'll sing you a song if you put a dollar in a bucket.' So stuff like that happens all the time."

Collins said in downtown St. Paul, he's never performed as a busker, let alone seen one. So he's excited about the city's transformation, even if it is short-lived.

"It is just going to be one week that's going to be packed up, and then they're going to say, 'All right, guys, get out of here,'" Collins said. "After that week, they'll be pretty tired. We have a Scandinavian population up here. And they clean up and get everything up to normal. They'll get it straight."

But Collins and others are hoping that the street music, the people, and all other signs of urban life stick around for long after the convention.