Cleveland getting ready for Republican National Convention
January 17, 2016 12:00 AM
Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Cleveland will host the GOP convention in perennially hard-fought Ohio.
By Joe Smydo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CLEVELAND — On the side of a Downtown building hangs a 10-story mural of LeBron James facing a crowd, muscled arms raised in swagger, the city’s name splayed across the back of his uniform jersey.
The mural went up in 2014 to celebrate the basketball star’s return to the Cavaliers after four seasons in Miami, but it also speaks to how Cleveland feels as it prepares to host this year’s Republican National Convention:
Strong, proud and ready to thrill the crowd.
“This is an opportunity — an unprecedented opportunity — for the world to get a look at our community,” said David Gilbert, president and CEO of the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee, the nonprofit organization that was formed to prepare for the convention.
About 50,000 people are expected to converge on Cleveland for the four-day event, beginning July 18 at the Quicken Loans Arena, known as “The Q.” The visitors will include 15,000 media with the potential to showcase Cleveland’s economic rebound and thousands of corporate decision-makers who might be charmed into doing business in a former Rust Belt city.
“The government affairs folks at every major corporation in America will be here,” said Joe Marinucci, president and CEO of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance.
The electronic and cyber exposure is a potential boon, too.
Interest in the Republican convention is running unusually high because of Donald Trump’s maverick campaign and the possibility of a historic “knock-down, drag out” floor fight over a nominee, said Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University.
“It’s going to be compelling television viewing,“ he said.
The convention also could raise the profile of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a McKees Rocks native who is a viable pick for vice president even if his presidential bid falls short, Mr. Whalen said. Cleveland was a good choice for the convention, he said, noting that the Republicans “absolutely need” to win Ohio.
Residents and businesses alike hope to cash in on the event. Anticipating a bed shortage, some Downtown residents are trying to rent their condos and townhouses to convention-goers for $25,000 or more. One complex, the Flats at East Bank Apartments, is offering new tenants $5,000 Mexican vacations if they stay away so their units can be rented to convention guests.
Cleveland beat out a half-dozen other cities, including co-finalist Dallas, for the honor of hosting the event. The announcement came came July 8, 2014, three days before Mr. James revealed his return to the Cavaliers.
“It was a hell of a week,” Mr. Marinucci said.
Civic leaders said it’s the right time for Cleveland to experience the spotlight. “Twenty years ago, we weren’t ready,” Mr. Gilbert said, referring to Cleveland’s long climb back from industrial decline, pollution and related problems.
In 2004, still reeling from manufacturing losses, Cleveland was named America’s poorest city. In 2014, according to census data, 39.4 percent of the city’s 390,000 people still lived below the poverty rate. The Cleveland-Elyria metropolitan area, by comparison, had a population of about 2 million and a poverty rate of 15.9 percent.
But while the growth has been uneven, Cleveland claims a resurgence similar to Pittsburgh’s, with a Downtown residential boom, burgeoning medical sector, vibrant culinary scene and, since February, a stunning 30,000-square-foot Heinen’s Grocery Store in a century-old bank building.
Convention preparations are adding to the city’s luster.
Officials are speeding up a $35 million overhaul of 6-acre Public Square, Downtown’s symbolic heart, with the aim of completing the work by June 1, six months or more ahead of schedule.
Destination Cleveland and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum plan to what Mr. Marinucci described as “speaker sculptures” in various locations so that snippets of hall inductees’ music can be played for throngs of pedestrians.
Some streets already have been paved. About 275 struggling trees are slated for replacement. Storefronts will sprout welcome signs, twinkling lights will be added to greenery, and dozens of concrete planters will be trucked in and filled with flowers to beautify the streetscape.
Leading a Downtown walking tour, Mr. Marinucci glanced at a barren patch outside of the Cleveland Horseshoe Casino — and promised it would be manicured by July.
Developers are scrambling to complete three hotels considered crucial to the city’s convention bid — a 120-room Kimpton in the century-old brick-and terracotta Schofield office building, a 185-room Drury Plaza in the stately former Board of Education headquarters and a 600-room Hilton near Public Auditorium.
In all,16,000 hotel rooms in the city and within a 40-minute drive have been booked for the convention, Mr. Marinucci said.
To provide additional options, Howard Hanna has compiled a portfolio of 260 condos and houses for rent Downtown and in outlying areas, said Jared Zak, the company’s director of property management for Ohio and Michigan. He said he’s just begun negotiating the first deals and cautioned that prospective renters’ asking prices often are too steep.
Civic leaders have pledged to raise $55 million to cover certain convention costs, and the federal government has earmarked $50 million to support law-enforcement costs at the convention, classified as a National Special Security Event.
Cleveland Police Chief Calvin D. Williams, who oversees a force of more than 1,600, said he plans to bring in as many as 2,500 officers from outside the city to assist. He is consulting with law-enforcement officials planning the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and sent officers there in September to observe security arrangements for Pope Francis’ visit.
The convention likely will attract protesters with a range of causes, including those upset with civil rights issues in Cleveland and other cities, and the American Civil Liberties Union said it worries about how a police department often criticized for heavy-handedness will respond.
Cleveland struggles with police-community relations. Officers’ fatal shooting of three people since 2012, including 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014, sparked multiple protests last year. In August, Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted an appearance by Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Controversial policing here is nothing new. According to an historical marker Downtown, a 1963 suspicious persons incident led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming use of the controversial “stop and frisk” tactic.
Convention planners have convened meetings with business owners to alert them to security issues — including one zone immediately around the arena and a second, softer layer beyond that — and to help the business community make the most of the event.
“We’re going to get a leg up with this convention,” said Julie Novak, director of operations for Team Sawyer, a group of restaurants and stores owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Jonathon Sawyer. The company is helping to plan a convention party showcasing the city’s culinary and cultural scenes.
Restaurants and other venues expect to be booked for events ranging from quiet political rendezvous to receptions featuring the corporate heavyweights who jet in to Burke Lakefront Airport.
Fortune 500 corporations are among those who have inquired about the use of the 10,000-square-foot Red Space a mile from the Q, owner John Gadd said, declining to give names. He said a corporation reserved his friend’s restaurant for $150,000, plus food costs, for the duration of the convention.
While the convention might create some awkward moments for Democratic Mayor Frank Jackson, he will have the opportunity to be a gracious host and win the praise of both parties, Mr. Whalen said.
Cleveland hosted the 1924 and 1936 GOP conventions at Public Auditorium. But the predominately Democratic city, in predominately Democratic Cuyahoga County, has not hosted a Democratic convention.
Mr. Marinucci said the city bid for both parties’ conventions and withdrew its invitation for the Democratic gathering after the GOP selected Cleveland. “We figured one was enough for this year,” he joked.
Joe Smydo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548. Staff writer Gary Rotstein contributed.
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