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RNC's first day brings mixed bag to businesses

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Look who's coming for lunch
MSNBC talk-show host Chris Matthews lunched at Meritage restaurant in downtown St. Paul on Monday before the start of the RNC.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Those 45,000 visitors who came to St. Paul for the RNC will have a lot of extra time on their hands.

Just ask Chris Matthews.

Spiffing up
Heimie's Haberdashery is reporting overall business is up during the RNC. Popular services include a haircut and a clean shave.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Over the lunch hour Monday, the MSNBC talk-show host was sitting on a patio at the French-style brasserie, Meritage, ready to bite into his chicken entree. Matthews is staying at the nearby St. Paul Hotel. 

With the convention scaled back on opening day, Matthews said he's spending a good portion of the day killing time. 

"It's very breezy, and kind of out of world, because nothing's happening yet ... because of what's happening with the hurricane," Matthews said. "Everyone's waiting around, you know, in suspension."

Meritage chef-owner
Russell Klein, chef and owner of Meritage restaurant, says business has been inconsistent but good overall.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Matthews said he was smitten with St. Paul's charm, which he described as "Canadian." And he even bought a few ties after realizing he forgot to pack them. 

And he's just the kind of guy St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman is hoping to capture.

"It may be more opportunity for them to travel and see some of the venues they might not have otherwise seen," Coleman said. "[Typically], when you go to a convention, you go to the convention itself, and you go to the reception you were scheduled to go to. So if it provides them to take a bike ride down the city or take a paddleboat down the river, we hope they'll take advantage of that."

Taking a break
Members of the kitchen staff at Kincaid's restaurant in St. Paul watch the protesters and police from their sidewalk. The restaurant hired extra staff and extended their hours to capture the RNC business, but business has gotten off to a slow start.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

But so far -- and it is still early in the week --the economic boom that many had predicted for St. Paul has been a mixed bag.

Some shops and restaurants have reported that regular customers are staying away to avoid the parking and traffic hassles surrounding the convention site. The skyways were dead, given that few downtown employees reported to work on Labor Day.

On the other hand, a nearby photocopy store and a haberdashery were getting lots of business from convention-goers, said Ellen Muller, the city's economic-development manager. 

It's up, and it's down, said Russell Klein, the chef and owner of Meritage.

"So far, business has been really inconsistent," he said. 

While business overall has been good, Klein said Saturday evening was one of the worst nights of the entire year.

"We've all been really surprised that the weekend before the convention was not what I think most of us were expecting it to be," Klein said. "We were all really overstaffed, maybe had a little too much food for what was going on. For St. Paul businesses, it's a little frustrating at the number of events that are taking place in Minneapolis, and the number of people who are staying in St. Paul and going to Minneapolis. We're the host city, and sometimes it's a little hard to tell that."

Klein isn't the only one who thinks the visitors are heading out to Minneapolis for all the fun. St. Paul business owners say they're promoting other nearby stores and restaurants, hoping to keep some of that cash local.

Karolyn Kirchgesler, president and CEO of the St. Paul Convention and Visitors Authority, said some delegates who are staying in Minneapolis or Bloomington will choose to stick around in St. Paul after they wrap up their convention business, even if it means passing up on a free ride back to their hotel.

"There are taxis that people can jump on," she said. "I think we see a lot of that anywyay, because people will come to events, they'll get together with others, and they'll decide to go somewhere to have a few drinks or to have a bite to eat, and so they don't get on their buses."

Still, the Republicans have booked more private parties in Minneapolis than in St. Paul.

Cliff Atkinson is the general manager of the luxury art hotel, Chambers, in downtown Minneapolis. 

He said there may be fewer people attending the catered events at his hotel because of the hurricane. Still, as of Monday morning, not a single party organizer had called to cancel.

"For our hotel, the events that have been planned are still scheduled to go on," he said. "However, we hear from the organizers that some of these events will change a little bit, and morph into fund-raising activities for the Gulf region."

At the end of the lunch hour at Kincaid's restaurant in St. Paul, five guys from the kitchen staff were outside on the sidewalk watching the protesters.

General manager Kim Oppegard said it feels like her restaurant is all dressed up with nowhere to go. She ticked off a list of preparations:

"We have increased our staffing levels. We purchased additional glassware and china and food product. My chef has put together a fabulous new menu during this time. We've extended our hours for opening our breakfast, which is something we've never done," she said.

Oppegard said she hasn't seen any of her regular customers Sunday or Monday, probably because of the downtown traffic restrictions. And several patrons have backed out of table reservations, she said.

But nearby Heimie's Haberdashery was hopping. 

Manager Vince Jenny said the regulars are staying away, but a lot of male delegates and journalists have been walking through the door for tuxes and hats, or just a final spiffing-up before the big show.

"A real popular item right now, is getting a straight razor shave and a haircut," Jenny said.

One of those shoppers was alternate delegate, Jonathan Payton from Arizona. Paton, a state representative, said he probably will check out the sites after he gets out of the convention hall Monday. But his group is still undecided on where to go.

"We were arguing about that earlier today," he said. "Some people said the State Fair. I guess you can find anything on a stick there."

Business owners said they were expecting a boon Monday night, after all those bored, hungry delegates were released from the convention hall.

Marty Moylan contributed to this report.