The Minneapolis-St. Paul host committee thought as many as 150,000 people might show up at the city's convention center during the Republican National Convention.
Al Risdorfer, who runs a little jewelry business in Maryland, came to Minneapolis last week to sell his wares to those crowds. Risdorfer brought small, themed crosses, decorated to commemorate police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses and others.
It wasn't just a bust, he said, it was "a catastrophe."
Civic Fest officials have not yet released the final attendance figures, but Risdorfer thinks actual attendance may have been less than one-quarter of the 150,000 that organizers expected.
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"We're a small, little company and we've only been in business for about a year," Risdorfer said. "We thought the kind of revenue we could get out of this could actually pay off some of the initial debt, and would make the year and actually get us in front of a lot of good people and that sort of thing. And then when nobody showed up, we not only didn't make money. We've actually lost money on this whole venture."
He and dozens of others of vendors say they understood the RNC was an unknown and there were risks.
They arrived to find themselves competing with the show's own gift shop for the few people that did show up, they said. They also discovered the Minnesota State Fair in full swing and the convention itself literally in a different city.
Not everyone is complaining. Some participants, like the Wabasha-based National Eagle Center, said they were still happy with the crowds. And the people that did show up liked what they saw, organizers say.
But the local organizers of the exposition concede Civic Fest didn't work out as promised. Today, the Host Committee 2008 said it is sending out letters to vendors telling them how to get back the fee they paid to participate, according to host committee spokeswoman Teresa McFarland.
Vendors paid as much as $2,500 to get a booth, she said.
"There is a risk involved in doing retail certainly, and especially when it comes to event retail. I mean, there are no guarantees," said McFarland. "But that said, we do understand that attendance was disappointing, and we are looking into what's our possible options."
Civic Fest ran for seven days and ended last Thursday.