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St. Paul business owners vent about the RNC

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Elephant-shaped glasses
Rimless elephant-shaped glasses would presumably be a hit during the RNC. But there were no takers.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Many of the 75 or so people who were in the room own shops in downtown or run restaurants on Grand Avenue. And most who spoke up said their sales didn't live up to the hype.

One of them was John Wolf, who owns the Southern-style restaurant Dixie's on Grand.

Ed Coleman
Ed Coleman manages the Spectacle Shoppe in the Lowry building in downtown St. Paul. The store opened the skyway location as part of a temporary retail program during the Republican National Convention. Coleman signed a two-week lease and said he only sold one pair of glasses during the convention. But the owners are hoping to capture local customers and are planning to keep the store open for good.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"We should have been told that the delegates were going to get in their buses, and get bused right to the front door, and right after the event, they were going to be bused right from the front door of the Xcel Energy Center right back to Minneapolis," Wolf said.

He said St. Paul lost an opportunity to steer thousands of visitors into local restaurants and venues. Wolf was disappointed to see places in Minneapolis book the majority of the private parties that helped ensure their success during the week.

And others in the audience went a step further, saying they felt misled by the promises of the convention planners and civic boosters.

Kathryn Severance and her husband, Jay, own The European Table, a skyway shop in the Lowry building that sells imported table linens.

"If we had known the extraordinary nature of the security around the Xcel arena itself, and if we had known the impact of the rogue protesters, I think we would have described the event differently."

"When we were first going to the meetings about this, they were saying, 'This would be the biggest event ever,' and it certainly was," Severance said. 

"We were also counseled to put in a lot of inventory, 'because there's going to be thousands of people coming through your area that were coming to buy,'" she added. "The longer I thought about that, the less I decided I wanted to do that. ... We weren't hurt; we just didn't get the business. But a lot of people were hurt because they got in a lot of inventory that they might not have otherwise purchased. But that was the advice we were given."

And one chamber official acknowledged that groups like hers may have overstated the impact that the convention would have on local businesses.

"I think if we had known the extraordinary nature of the security around the Xcel arena itself, and if we had known the impact of the rogue protesters, I think we would have described the event differently," said Susan Kimberly, the chamber's vice president of economic development. "We would have been a little more cautious in what we said."

Kimberly said the security fence that surrounded the Xcel Energy Center caught her group by surprise. The city released details of the fence surrounding just three days before the convention, and many workers and residents learned only after the fence went up how difficult it would be to walk to shops and restaurants along West Seventh Street.

"Once you got inside the building, you weren't about to go out and go shopping," she said. "It was really tightened down. It was really a drum."

Jay Severance
Jay Severance, co-owner of The European Table, inspects a French tablecloth in his storefront window out of the Lowry building. The couple said the civic boosters that were welcoming the RNC encouraged businesses like theirs to stock up on inventory to handle the crowds from the convention. Severance and his wife opened a second skyway location as part of the temporary retail program, but business was slow during the RNC. They'll be closing the second location shortly.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Business owners said they would have been able to plan better for the event if they knew about the pedestrian restrictions and the delegates' schedules ahead of time.

Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland agreed that everyone could have benefited from more information, but she says the federal government and RNC organizers were in charge of some key decisions.

"We didn't have control over the fence, and when it was going to be put up, or what the delegates were doing and when they were being bused," she said. "If we were to do it again -- sigh, deep breath -- we would ask more questions and demand more information. I don't know how much more we'd get. We were asking those questions and demanding that information, just to be clear. We released the perimeter 24 hours before anyone in the Secret Service wanted us to."

Still, many who attended the session said a lot of things went right. They praised the St. Paul police for doing their best to protect downtown buildings from violent demonstrators. 

And some said despite all the inconveniences, they were proud to help position St. Paul on a world stage.

Karolyn Kirchgesler, head of the St. Paul Convention and Visitors Authority, said her group has secured four additional conventions after using the RNC experience as a selling point. 

Over the past several months, the group booked the Worldwide Group Spring Leadership Conference; the Polaris Industries Inc. Dealer sales meeting; the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Conference on Robotics and Automation; and the American Fisheries Society annual meeting. 

Kirchgesler said those conventions will bring a total of more than 10,000 attendees to the city in the years 2009 and 2012. 

And, a handful of the 19 temporary retailers that were recruited to set up shop in downtown for the convention said they'll stick around for even longer. The Fun Sisters Boutique and the Spectacle Shoppe eyewear store were among them.

Meanwhile, some property owners are still dealing with the aftermath of the convention. The Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association estimates that the protesters created up to $95,000 in broken windows and other property damage.

Matt Anfang, the association's president, has asked the city to help pay for the repairs. He says his group is still waiting for an answer.

"We can't seem to get from a solid response from them if they're willing to assist -- we haven't even heard a 'no,'" Anfang said.