As the Twin Cities get ready to welcome the Republican national convention in September, merchants are hopeful that the spending will be anything but conservative.

Whether they're peddling $18 stuffed toy elephants that giggle when squeezed or $500 watches engraved with the party's name, Twin Cities entrepreneurs will be greeting 35,000 visitors with open arms and plenty of merchandise.

"We're hoping to gross revenues of over $2 million," says Pady Regnier, owner of St. Croix Promotions and Retail in Bloomington, which won the convention's souvenir contract.

St. Croix hopes to sell more than 100,000 campaign buttons during the Sept. 1-4 event, along with elephant hats, elephant flip-flops, cups, golf balls, cuff links, money clips and a T-shirt bearing a U.S. flag, circa 1892 -- the last year a Republican convention was held in Minnesota.

Regnier is banking on a landslide when it comes to party preferences for souvenirs.

"The numbers we've heard is that the average Republican convention guest purchases about $56 in 'memory' merchandise," Regnier said. "The average Democrat -- about $9.80."

Entrepreneurs also will be making money by taking convention-goers for a ride.

"I would expect there will be close to 1,000 limousines [in town] at the time of the convention," says Brian Iversrud, owner of River City Limousine and president of the Minnesota Chauffered Transportation Association.

Don't expect to see a lot of stretch limos, however. "They don't want to be too ostentatious," Iversrud said. "The biggest demand is for corporate sedans."

A corporate car, booked for the entire week, can run $1,500 to $2,000, while a limo coach could go for $3,000 to $4,000 a week. Iversrud expects the limo industry to gross about $1.5 million off the convention.

The private bus business will be stretched thin, and out-of-state bus companies will be coming in to help. "There aren't enough buses here to handle a convention this size," said Doug Loos, sales manager of Lorenz Bus Service of Blaine.

A charter bus will run $800 to $1,100 for seven to 10 hours of use, he said. "It's going to be a big week."

'A lot of tenderloin'

Twin Cities hotels and motels will take in an estimated $32 million, including about $4.5 million in advance site visits, according to estimates by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The St. Paul Hotel, which will house the Arizona and Nevada delegations, has all 254 rooms booked from Aug. 30 to Sept. 4, said general manager David Miller.

Politicians, lobbyists, corporate big-wigs and others also will party deep into the night across the Twin Cities.

One of the bigger blowouts will be AgNite, an invitation-only party on Sept. 2 at the Milwaukee Road Depot in Minneapolis that is expected to draw 3,000 to 5,000.

Daryn McBeth, president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, the host of the event, said the party will cost a "little bit over $1 million."

Larry D'Amico, president of D'Amico Catering of Minneapolis, said his company is catering parties of 800 for Blue Cross and Blue Shield, 800 to 1,000 for the Texas governor's ball, 1,000 for the Ohio Republican Party, plus a brunch for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and several parties for AT&T, Wells Fargo & Co. and Target Corp.

"It's a lot of tenderloin, a lot of shrimp, a lot of butler-passed hors d'oeuvres, a lot of champagne, a lot of wine," said D'Amico.

For Kelly's Depot Bar and Grill on East Kellogg Boulevard in St. Paul, it's a lot of beer, and business has already been good.

On many nights some 10 to 15 people who are working on preparations for the convention gather at the bar, said Rick Kelly, son of the owner. "They like beer," said Kelly. "They don't drink the hard stuff."

Limits to the bounty

Take'08Events Unlimited is a one-stop, private sector operation that's serving as a kind of invisible hand linking corporations, trade associations, politicians and lobbyists with the Twin Cities marketplace to make arrangements for parties, lodging and transportation.

"I don't think anyone is making a killing, to be perfectly blunt," said Ryan Kelly, the company's director of client services. "But we are being fairly compensated."

The Padelford Packet Boat Co., which operates three river boats for cruises on the Mississippi River, has been underwhelmed by convention business.

Steve Bowell, president of Padelford, said he signed a contract with the Republican Committee on Arrangements for exclusive use of his river boats from Aug. 30 to Sept. 4. So far, he has booked three trips, when he could handle as many as 40.

"I think if I had signed with an independent contractor, we would have done better," he said.

Debate persists among the experts about just how much money will be made off the convention.

"Our analysis shows $162 million in gross state product gains," said Kirsten Morell, spokeswoman for the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Tom Stinson, the state economist, said he will wait to review the state sales-tax figures for September.

"There is always money to be made," Stinson said. "The question is, who makes it and whether there is a net increase or not. Certainly some individuals and firms and some institutions are going to do quite well, but others may not do as well as they would in a normal week.

"In a lot of situations, it may be just a substitution. You are getting this business from the [convention] rather than some other group."

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382