DENVER - Stepping out of her downtown office building with her son in tow on Friday, ready to head to the mountains for the Labor Day weekend, lawyer Dori DeJong was taken aback.
"This is the worst the traffic has been all week,” she said, surveying cars backed up on Lincoln Street as authorities closed nearby roads for the Taste of Colorado festival starting Friday afternoon.
As an estimated 50,000 visitors for the Democratic National Convention continued clearing out of the bleary-eyed city and workers dismantled tents and took down security fences, life in Denver was returning to its usual hassles Friday.
Many residents said they were surprised that everything had gone so smoothly — the kind of outcome the Twin Cities would like next week when St. Paul hosts the GOP convention.
Traffic was mostly calm — even lighter than usual on freeway commute times, according to some.
Business was good for many bars and restaurants downtown, especially those on the bustling 16th Street Mall. And despite rumblings that there would be massive protester chaos, a highly visible police presence — some would call it ominous — resulted in about 150 arrests, far fewer than the 1,800 at the Republican National Convention in New York four years ago.
Local leaders took an hour Friday morning to bask in the glow, calling a wrap-up news conference.
“I can’t be any more excited” Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper said afterward. “Our city was great.”
That was the assessment of many locals, too.
Jim McCotter, president of the Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association, which is near the Pepsi Center, said residents there were somewhat apprehensive before the convention began, realizing the potential for things to go wrong with protesters and traffic.
“It was absolutely fantastic,” he said, noting that the 16th Street Mall — similar to Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall — resembled the sidewalks of Manhattan during the convention. “The city looked great. A lot of people saw what Denver has to offer.”
'A great job’
DeJong, who commuted into downtown every day from Reunion, Colo., said she had no trouble with traffic and was happy to be a part of the festivities. “It was fun to be downtown,” she said.
“Denver did a great job in organizing the town and turning out people who were friendly and having an appropriate public safety response,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said at the convention’s close on Thursday night. “They set a high bar, but I think we can do better.”
The distance between venues in downtown Denver made getting around somewhat difficult, Rybak said. And while the Twin Cities will be shuttling people from one downtown to another, activity will be centered in three compact spots — downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul, and Bloomington.
As long as the shuttles work well, visitors will be able to walk around many areas unimpeded by security measures, he said. In Minneapolis, he said, visitors and locals alike will have a good time. “The streets are going to be really lively.”
Duluth area delegate Valerie Coit and boyfriend Mike Scholtz said things went flawlessly until Thursday night, when the convention’s move from the Pepsi Center to the larger Invesco Field brought confusion. Scholtz, who went to hear Barack Obama’s acceptance speech with a guest pass, said he and Coit stood in line for an hour and 45 minutes.
Coit also said she thought the protesters were kept too far from the delegates. “I was a little sad I couldn’t see more of that,” she said.
High visibility of police
St. Paul City Council Member and delegate Melvin Carter said he thought Denver was “phenomenal” overall. His only nit: the high visibility of police, troops of them wearing all-black riot gear.
“I saw quite a bit more this week than I expect to see next week,” he said.
Carter, impressed by Denver hospitality, jokingly wondered whether the city had passed some sort of friendliness resolution.
Greeters at the airport, volunteers on the street, average citizens and even the police were generally friendly, with many uttering the often repeated phrase, “Welcome to Denver.”
Will Minnesotans do the same? “Oh, yeah,” Carter said. “You betcha.”
With national conventions, it’s the lasting impressions of friendliness and vibrancy, along with the media coverage, that are most important for the long term, city leaders and marketers say.
In Denver, leaders are trying to capitalize on the historic nature of Obama’s speech Thursday night, dubbing it “the Denver Address.”
Hickenlooper said he has few regrets, aside from such stuff as questioning whether a couple of key downtown streets actually needed to be closed. “You should never let perfection be the enemy of good, right?” he said.
Asked what the convention did for Denver’s reputation — sometimes considered stuck between cow town and big city — Hickenlooper said, “I think this convention, once and for all, finished that argument ... Again and again, people were saying, 'You know, I would love to live in a city like this.’ ”
Hickenlooper’s advice to Twin Cities mayors: Get sleep early in the week. “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” he said.
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102