Security keeping business out of St. Paul

Security checkpoint
Convention-goers pass through a security checkpoint to get back into the Xcel Energy Center.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Now into the third day of the Republican National Convention, parts of downtown St. Paul have come alive with vendors, street musicians and people milling about. Traffic in and out of downtown has been relatively smooth, except for some delays last night as demonstrators clashed with police.

But many businesses are still asking: "Was it worth it?" The bars and restaurants along West Seventh Street, especially, say sales have been down.

The sidewalk in front of Cossetta's Italian Market and Pizzeria is bustling with a mix of people -- Secret Service agents, police officers, and journalists.

But Dave Cossetta said Wednesday's crowd was the biggest he has seen all week. It's taken three days for folks to finally discover his restaurant, he said.

"I think what's happened is now the delegates have actually gotten one full session in, gotten acclimated to the area and where the building is," he said. "So now after coming around here earlier, they're trying to find their way around the city. We're on this side of the fence. The city's really cut in half. So you're either on that side of the city, or you're on this side."

Dave Cossetta
Restaurant owner Dave Cossetta says the RNC security perimeter and the area traffic restrictions kept many regular customers away this week. He turned his parking lot into an outdoor patio to help attract out-of-town visitors. His restaurant is located in a no-traffic zone.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Ah, the fence -- it's about nine feet tall and cordons off the entire RiverCentre convention center. The maze, and all of its confounding exit locations, makes it hard for locals and downtown workers to walk to places like Cossetta's.

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Downtown condo resident Nikki McCauley and her boyfriend, Drew Engleman, strolled up a couple blocks past the Eagle Street Grille, not realizing they wouldn't be able to get out at that spot. They had to pass through the fence on the other side of the street.

"It's kind of annoying, all the fencing around," McCauley said.

"Not knowing where to go and stuff," Engleman said.

"But they have to do it," McCauley said. "It's not so bad."

Just a block and a half away from Cossetta's, the foot traffic along the sidewalks dies down considerably. A lone car pulled into the drive-through window at the Dairy Queen.

Brittani Rainelli
Brittani Rainelli offered free samples of sauteed sausage and peppers outside of Cosetta's Italian Market and Pizzeria. She said for some reason, a lot of the journalists, delegates and other passers-by declined.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Business at the DQ is "actually not doing good at all," said manager Christine Meier. She said her store is bringing in only about half of number of customers as usual.

"It's because there's a big wall there, and everyone's on the other side of it," she said. "It just didn't work out how we planned it."

Several blocks away in downtown, the farmers market on Seventh Place wasn't drawing its typical lunchtime crowds on Tuesday.

Hunter Vang said he suspected that locals and even downtown workers were scared away by scary footage of protests gone awry.

"The deal is that the media try to make it sound like there's war going down here, and people don't want to come up because they're afraid of getting hurt by the crowd," he said. "It's crazy. Because there's no war going down here and there's no protesters protesting."

There have been protests that turned ugly over the past couple of days. Last night, police used tear gas and flash bangs to break up a crowd near Mickey's Diner. One of many police officers in riot gear was perched on top of the restaurant to protect the landmark. St. Paulites may have been surprised to see their iconic diner car as a backdrop to such a startling scene.

But city officials are trying to play up the good things that the convention is bringing to town. They've steered reporters to a new chocolate shop and a package-and-shipping station that are staying busy this week. And they note that the castle-like Landmark Center has been booked solid this week for private parties, and walk-up traffic there has also been steady.

Amy Mino, executive director of Minnesota Landmarks, said the building has served as the backdrop for live news shots all week. It may not send viewers in droves to come find this beautiful building, but she says it will be good for St. Paul in the long run.

"I think the impression will be an overall impression. And the remembrance will be that it's a beautiful place. The comments that we've gotten -- and this is one that St. Paul has also promoted -- is that we have an old-world hospitality," Mino said. "And I think that impression will remain with people, and they will come back to St. Paul, and they will make it here."

And St. Paul officials hope that impression sticks around much longer than the images of tear gas and pepper spray.