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St. Paul business owners feel they aren't getting a fair RNC shake

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Hunan Garden restaurant welcomes conventioneers
The Hunan Garden Restaurant near the corner of Cedar St. & Sixth Ave. makes it clear that convention goers are welcome.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

They've had to board up storefronts after rioters smashed windows Monday. They're losing their regular customers to traffic and pedestrian restrictions. And on top of that, some restaurants and retailers say the delegates are spending their cash across the river. 

St. Paul business owner Bill Collins strolled past some of downtown St. Paul's hottest restaurants over the lunch hour Tuesday. The crowds were thin. And that caused him to scratch his head a bit.

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

"For the critical mass and the number of people who are out here, it's confounding," Collins said. "Where are these people eating and drinking?"

By "these people," he's referring to the 45,000 conventioneers, journalists and other out-of-town visitors.

Collins runs a GLBT nightclub, Camp, on the other side of downtown. While he wasn't expecting huge profits this week from the Republicans, he wonders if St. Paul is getting a fair shake out of the deal.

"Those of us who are in downtown St. Paul, there are some inconveniences, certainly," he said. "I think people aren't seeing the bump they've hoped for, the ying and the yang. We got the ying, and Minneapolis got the yang."

Most of the private parties during the RNC are taking place in Minneapolis. Kris Johnson, the head of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said St. Paul city officials may be partly to blame for initially charging bars a hefty fee to stay open late.

"I think it certainly hamstringed them, definitely -- given the fact that Minneapolis and Bloomington were quick to react … and  Bloomington didn't even pass a fee. If you're an event planner, that sure made things easier because the cost of event was less."

Teresa McFarland, spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Host Committee, said people are still eating, shopping and drinking across the region.

And when it came to booking venues for private parties, McFarland said the free market was at play.

"While a lot of places were on our official list ... it was up to those individual organizations and the entity that was holding the party to negotiate a price, and sometimes they found a better deal at another location," she said. "There's a lot of competition for hosting these parties. It might be fair to look at what these people were charging, and was it a reasonable cost to hold a party there."

Some of the grumblings from St. Paul businesses came early in the week, even before the convention started. On Sunday night, the crowd was so sparse at the classy Italian restaurant Pazzaluna that servers were on the sidewalks handing out free pizza to passers-by, hoping to lure people inside.

But a manager there said business has picked up since then. And despite a slow start over the weekend, the French-style brasserie, Meritage, quickly filled up shortly after it opened for business yesterday evening.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, restaurant critic for Minnesota Monthly, said it's no surprise that private groups decided to hold their parties in Minneapolis.

"The big-name restaurants are all in Minneapolis," she said. "I think you're working against your reputation in St. Paul."

And she said there's plenty of good food to be had in St. Paul, even if the scene is hipper in Minneapolis.

"You know, a lot of the best places in St. Paul aren't places that are flashy, but are homey, family places," said Moskowitz Grumdahl. "I'm thinking of Groveland Tap or the Highland Park Punch [Neopolitan Pizza]. Those will be as busy, and there will be a line to get in, just as there always is. But they won't be for delegates. There will be for the people for live there."

St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune, who represents downtown, said he has spoken to the owners of Cossetta's and Mancini's along West Seventh Street. They told him business has been slow, due to traffic restrictions. But they said they're hoping the headaches eventually translate into a payoff, Thune said.

"They said they're troupers, and they're in it for the long haul for the city," Thune said. "They're St. Paulites, born and bred. And they said if this helps get future conventions and people moving into town, then it's worth it."

No one knows for sure what the payoff will be. But the earliest sign could come mid-October, when the state's Department of Revenue releases information from their sales-tax receipts.