Pittsburgh weighs submitting bid to host Democratic convention

Staging 2016 event

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Pittsburgh will take the first step in pursuing a possible bid to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention. But you might want to hold off on the balloons, banners and buttons for now.

There's no shortage of political and logistical challenges still to overcome if the Steel City is to land its first major political convention, not to mention tough competition from other cities, including those in neighboring Ohio, a key battleground state.

Mayor Bill Peduto intends to submit a letter of interest to the Democratic National Committee by Saturday's deadline, spokesman Timothy McNulty said Thursday.

Pittsburgh was one of three dozen cities invited to bid for the 2016 convention by DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz earlier this month.

While Mr. Peduto noted this week that hosting the convention would bring Pittsburgh greater recognition, he also seemed cool to the notion, saying "I don't know if it'd be the biggest priority for us."

"It would be a great honor for the city ... and bring worldwide prominence to the city once again," he said. "We have to be cognizant of whether or not we can afford it. Right now we're pinching pennies to be able to buy rock salt."

Cost estimates for hosting the national convention range from $50 million to $60 million, although Ms. Wasserman Schultz said in her letter to Mr. Peduto that past conventions have generated $150 million to $200 million for the host city's economy in return.

The host committee in Charlotte, where the 2012 Democratic convention was held, raised $24.1 million for the event, far short of a $36.6 million goal. The city, however, estimated the convention produced nearly $164 million in economic impact.

Despite its prominence over the years, particularly as a key Democratic stronghold, Pittsburgh has never hosted a national nominating convention for Republicans or Democrats. About as close as it has come was in 1856 when it was the site of the Republican Party's first organizing convention.

Pittsburgh was on a short list of cities in 2002 to host the 2004 Democratic convention, but then-Mayor Tom Murphy declined because of the costs involved to retrofit the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which was then under construction.

The convention ended up going to Boston, where then-Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was nominated for president. The keynote speech that year was delivered by Barack Obama, then an Illinois senator.

Penguins CEO David Morehouse, who was senior adviser to Mr. Kerry in his 2004 campaign, believes Pittsburgh would be a perfect spot for the convention.

"I think Pittsburgh has some major positives compared to other cities in location, demographics, story to tell and facilities,'' he said. "We have great facilities with the Consol Energy Center, the convention center and other venues."

The DNC is requiring cities interested in bidding to have a nominating venue that seats 18,500 to 25,000 people and contains 100 skyboxes. In addition, there must be at least 17,000 hotel rooms and 1,000 suites available for delegates and others.

According to VisitPittsburgh, the local tourism group, there are roughly 24,000 hotel rooms available in Allegheny County and parts of Butler and Beaver counties. CEO Craig Davis added that another 800 rooms should be ready Downtown by 2016.

Mr. Davis said there are 1,600 suites in the same area, more than enough to meet the DNC requirement.

"I don't think there's anything stopping us from hosting," he said. "The facilities that presently exist in Pittsburgh, I believe, meet the requirements the DNC is asking for."

Consol Energy Center contains 18,387 seats for hockey, but gets close to 20,000 for concerts and other events that use the floor. There are 66 suites, but Mr. Morehouse said some could be divided and others added to get closer to 100.

In bidding for the convention, Pittsburgh, he argued, should turn some of its perceived disadvantages into advantages.

"Pittsburgh is a city that is more representative of the rest of the country than a city with a bunch of luxury hotel rooms and an overabundance of luxury boxes in its arena," Mr. Morehouse said.

"It's about more than staying at the Ritz-Carlton. It's about working families and some of the things the Democrats have historically used in their messaging."

Politics also has altered the landscape, perhaps to Pittsburgh's detriment. After many years in the limelight, Pennsylvania, which has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, wasn't considered a key battleground state in 2012, giving way to states like Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Nevada, and Virginia.

With so much on the line, Republicans and Democrats have targeted key swing states for their conventions in recent elections. The Democrats chose Charlotte in 2012, while the GOP picked Tampa.

"The tendency now seems to say, let's go to the swing state," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

That could give the edge to cities like Columbus, Cincinnati or Cleveland in Ohio, all of which have been named finalists for the 2016 GOP convention and extended invitations to bid for the Democratic one. Mr. Madonna rated Pittsburgh's chances as fair.

"I wouldn't say great but there's a reasonable chance they could get it because of the market in Ohio and West Virginia, but West Virginia has a miniscule amount of electoral votes," he said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said being a swing state is only one factor. He noted the Democrats held their convention in Boston in 2004 when there was little chance of losing Massachusetts.

"It's not always been that way [with swing states]. I think it's just one of many considerations," he said.

Nonetheless, that hasn't stopped cities in neighboring Ohio from pulling out all the stops in an effort to land one or both conventions.

According to CNN, Columbus hosted a cocktail reception Thursday at a DNC meeting in Washington, D.C., as part of its bid, with an invitation made to look like a delegate's pass to the 2016 convention.

The Republican and Democratic parties in Columbus also have launched a joint effort aimed at landing one of the conventions. A state development agency has offered up to $10 million to any Ohio city that lands either convention. Cuyahoga County Council also is supporting Cleveland's bid for the events with a $2.5 million pledge.

In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, which hosted the 2000 GOP convention, plans to bid for the 2016 Democratic bash.

And while the emphasis has been on swing states in recent elections, Mr. Madonna pointed out that Republican Mitt Romney carried North Carolina in 2012 even though the Democrats held their convention in Charlotte and President Obama won Florida despite the Republicans gathering in Tampa.

"So much for strategy," he said.

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. Staff writer Moriah Balingit contributed.

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