Mpls. hard wait after soft sell to Democrats

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2011 - 11:22 PM

Mayor R.T. Rybak is still optimistic as Democrats get ready to reveal the site for their 2012 convention.

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Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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The Twins were home, the fans were giddy and the downtown Minneapolis skyline glittered in the warm summer night.

With his city looking sharp, Mayor R.T. Rybak delivered his pitch.

As he walked the streets near Target Field with two Democratic National Committee members, Rybak pointed out hotels, pubs and cafes that would cater to the crowds should the Democrats pick his city for their 2012 national convention. "I wanted to let them feel the magic of a beautiful night downtown," Rybak recalls.

It was a soft sell by the often hard-charging mayor. But now, with the DNC decision imminent, it's a moment that Rybak hopes makes a difference.

A DNC spokesperson said this week that a decision is expected within days. Cleveland, St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C., are the other cities being considered.

To the winner goes a host of logistical headaches, but also bragging rights, millions of dollars in hotel, restaurant and retail revenue and nearly a week in the national spotlight.

"It's almost like waiting for the birth of a baby," said Leslie Wright, senior vice president for sales and service for Meet Minneapolis, the civic group that delivered the city's bid. "We know what's coming. We just don't know when."

Boost for the city

If the DNC has a favorite, it's not saying.

Charlotte and St. Louis were described as the frontrunners by unnamed party insiders in Politico, the New York Times and the Charlotte Observer.

But a DNC source this week discounted those reports.

Some party insiders in Minnesota say privately that there hasn't been much local buzz, in part because a big national convention -- the GOP's -- took place in St. Paul 2 1/2 years ago.

"We just assume it's not coming here," a prominent local DFLer said.

But Rybak said Minneapolis researched and delivered its bid without fanfare out of respect for the DNC wishes. He and others with knowledge of the process say they've heard nothing to suggest the city is out of contention.

"As far as we're concerned, all four cities are very much in the hunt," said Melvin Tennant, CEO and president of Meet Minneapolis.

The anticipation, and the stakes, are high. Tennant estimates the convention could mean $160 million for local hotels, restaurants and retailers.

More than that, it would give the city a prime-time opportunity to show itself off.

"There was a period of time in the '80s when this community competed for everything -- Gorbachev, All-Star games, Super Bowls -- and we want to get back to that," Rybak said.

The city's major selling point: Nearly 6,000 hotel rooms, most within walking distance of the convention center, along with a number of facilities -- Target Center, the convention center, the Metrodome and parts of Target Field -- that can host social functions.

"The position we took early on is, any of these cities could do a good job of hosting this, but we simply could do a better job," Rybak said.

The mayor's role

Rybak's interest in hosting the event dates back to when the city lost out to Denver for the 2008 convention. Coming close, he said, was incentive to try again. He says the 2008 Republican gathering is proof that the Twin Cities can pull off a political convention.

It also doesn't hurt that Rybak, who Tennant calls "our not-so-secret weapon," is a longtime booster of President Obama.

"Do not underestimate the role the mayor has played in this," Tennant said. "We think all those advantages really give us an excellent opportunity to grab this convention."

However, factors beyond the city's control could decide the issue.

St. Louis appeals to some Democrats because it's in a swing state that Obama narrowly lost in 2008. Others favor Cleveland because of Ohio's 20 electoral votes. And Charlotte has long been seen as an important Democratic beachhead in the South.

"We've been making [our] case for many months, and we're obviously trying to stay front of mind in these last few hours," Rybak said. "You only have to scramble at the 11th hour if you haven't done everything you needed to do, and I think we've done our best."

Last-minute work

Wright said she e-mails or talks with DNC officials or Minnesota's congressional leaders almost daily to "cross all our t's and dot all our i's."

Tennant and several others meet weekly in the top-floor "war room" of his downtown office to talk strategy.

When UNITE HERE, the national union representing hospitality workers, recently threw its support behind Minneapolis and St. Louis because they are the only cities of the four able to house a large portion of DNC guests in unionized hotels, Tennant made sure party leaders got the word.

Likewise, when the Metrodome roof collapsed, Minneapolis organizers were quick to assure the DNC that all would be fine by 2012.

"We have to make sure nothing is said that would make us, or position us, behind the other cities," Tennant said.

In recent days, Rybak said, he and others have been talking behind the scenes with Twin Cities business leaders about establishing a host committee to help raise money. Rybak said the city also is negotiating a contract with the DNC so that it can move quickly if picked.

"If it's a go," Rybak said, "we have to move immediately."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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