St. Paul businesses left out of RNC windfall
TAMPA - Ray Vanyo of St. Paul, Minn., has a few bitter words of caution for any downtown Tampa business hoping for a bonanza from the Republican National Convention. "I'd be desperately opposed to having them here again," Vanyo said. Vanyo manages the Cossetta Italian Market in St. Paul, and before the RNC came there in 2008, organizers said his restaurant would be inside a guarded security perimeter along with 20,000 hungry and wealthy conventioneers. Thrilled, Vanyo stocked up on extra supplies, tents and staff. Instead, just days before the event, a 10-foot-tall riot fence went up around the convention site, and Cossetta's place was on the outside looking in."We probably lost $100,000," Vanyo said. "A lot of people were put out. You had churches who bought cases of hot dogs hoping to sell them and raise money. Nothing. You had guys trying to sell flags and T-shirts. Nothing. All because they were outside the fence." As city bars, hotels and restaurants prepare for the RNC, the question looming largest for business success is the exact placement of the security fence around the convention and whether police establish an "Exclusion Zone" for vehicles, as they did in St. Paul. An exclusion zone the size of St. Paul's would block off half of downtown Tampa – splitting the city between those inside with conventioneers, and those outside watching busses of people roll past. * * * * * Back in early 2008, having the RNC in St. Paul seemed a huge boost, city officials said. A few city boosters wanted to declare victory immediately, said Sara Grewing, city attorney for St. Paul and an aide to the mayor during the convention in 2008. Reality, Grewing said, proved more mixed. "It was a tough week," she said. True, the RNC generated enormous exposure around the world for the city, "but the downtown businesses expected manna from heaven and they just didn't get it." Bartenders at The Liffey Irish Pub in downtown St. Paul were excited before the RNC in 2008. They dreamed that hordes of big-spending delegates from the convention arena would rush their doors to gobble up food and toast their leaders. Then the fence went up just a few feet outside the front door. "It pretty much cut our foot traffic down to zero," said Derek Sivula, a bartender at The Liffey. "The stadium is right across the street. But to get to the security checkpoint to go in or out you had to go all the way around the stadium." Conventioneers were uninterested in going through security to leave the convention hall, then again to re-enter, just to go to his bar – if they even knew it was there. Luckily, The Liffey had booked a few private parties with the RNC and that kept their business afloat. "We went through a ton of scotch and red wine," Silva said, "a lot more than we ever thought." * * * * * Other venues weren't so lucky, Grewing said. For the week of the convention, police blocked off more areas outside the fence to all but authorized vehicles like RNC buses and police cars – further cutting down on business for local bars and restaurants. RNC organizers had hundreds of busses to shuttle around the delegates and conventioneers. Yet, because downtown St. Paul had only about 1,600 hotel rooms, most of the attendees actually stayed at hotels in next-door Minneapolis or in the suburbs. Buses would load up with conventioneers inside the fence at the arena, then zoom off, leaving the downtown St. Paul bars and restaurants empty. A slew of businesses along downtown's 7th Street had stocked up before the RNC, expecting a wave of customers, only to see their business actually drop off. Anticipating parties, St. Paul allowed bars and restaurants to stay open much later – until 4 a.m. – and charged a $2,500 application fee for the privilege. But so few bars saw extra business that the city at the last minute cut the fee to zero. * * * * * Just where the fence will go in Tampa, or if there will be a no-traffic zone, is confidential.The U.S. Secret Service will be in charge of the exact placement, and as of this week, even Tampa Police have not been informed, spokeswoman Andrea Davissaid. If St. Paul's five-block, no-traffic zone were imposed in Tampa, it would stretch from the Channel District on the east to the Platt Street Bridge on the west, and from Harbour Island on the south – over the Selmon Crosstown Expressway – and into city hall on Jackson Street to the north. If there was one business in St. Paul that made out like a bandit, it was the Eagle Street Grill next to the stadium. "They were the only restaurant inside the zone," Grewing said. "CNN basically took it over and turned it into a media hub for the whole event. They did great."
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