Is Philly ready to get another national convention?

     Overlooked by a statue of George Washington on a horse, protesters march up Ben Franklin Blvd., toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Sunday, July 30, 2000, on the eve before the Republican National Convention. (William Wilson Lewis III/AP Photo)

    Overlooked by a statue of George Washington on a horse, protesters march up Ben Franklin Blvd., toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Sunday, July 30, 2000, on the eve before the Republican National Convention. (William Wilson Lewis III/AP Photo)

    When I heard way back that Congressman Bob Brady was pushing for Philadelphia to make a bid to host the Democratic National Convention, I was little skeptical.

    I was here back in the late ’90s when the city bid for both the Democratic and Republican 2000 conventions, and bagged the GOP prize.

    I have to admit I was kind of excited about it back then. It was a special moment in the city’s history. It had been nearly broke only a few years before, but a strong economy and the team of Mayor Ed Rendell had revived the city’s fortunes and reinvigorated Center City.

    When Rendell asked for help, business and civic leaders rallied to help the city grab the national spotlight and showcase Philadelphia’s s comeback. I’ve always felt this is a great place to visit, an undiscovered treasure, and thought it could only help the city if thousands of well-heeled and well-connected people came here and had a great experience.

    And the team Rendell and his people put together, headed by current Comcast Senior Vice President Karen Buchholz, did an amazing job of raising money and preparing the city’s bid.

    The city is in a different place now,  and I wasn’t sure we had the need or the civic capacity to mount that kind of effort to throw a four-day political party. But somehow the city has managed to make the field of six finalists for the 2016 Democratic convention, in part, perhaps, because a lot of cities decided it wasn’t worth it. The competition isn’t exactly an A-list of convention cities: Cleveland, Columbus, Phoenix, Birmingham, and Brooklyn.

    What it takes

    Getting one of the major political parties to stage a convention in your city isn’t just a matter of convincing them they’ll have a swell time there. They expect you to pay, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

    Here’s some of what the Democratic National Committee required of the host committee for Charlotte, North Carolina, for the 2012 convention:

    250 air-conditioned buses to haul delegates and staff around.
    50 vehicles for party staffers to use a full year before the convention and 350 vehicles during the convention itself.
    50,000 square feet of class-A office space for staff along with 20 fax machines and 700 smart phones.
    outfitting of a huge sports arena to make it suitable for a political convention.
    construction of a 200,000-square-foot temporary media center adjacent to the arena, fully outfitted with power, desks and Wi-Fi.

    To ensure the Charlotte host committee would deliver, the DNC required it to commit to raising “in private monetary donations” $36.6 million. You can read all the details here.

    Charlotte got the convention but, in the end, couldn’t raise all that money. The company Duke Energy, which agreed to put up a $10 million line of credit for the host committee just in case fundraising fell short, ended up having to eat that loss.

    I spoke with University of North Carolina professor Eric Heberlig, who’s writing a book about cities hosting conventions. He said the consensus in Charlotte was it was worth the effort because it was an up and coming city that wanted to introduce itself to the nation.

    “It allowed Charlotte to make the case for what it’s about, how it’s changing, to build a brand that just advertising in the usual tourist-oriented venues doesn’t get you,” Heberlig said. It might be a different calculus for Philadelphia, a larger city with a more established positive image, he added.

    Philly gears up

    The city’s host committee for the 2016 effort, dubbed Philadelphia 2016, is chaired by former governor and mayor Ed Rendell, who’s done this before, and staffed at the moment by Kevin Washo, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee.

    Both are optimistic (though Rendell says this effort is “behind the curve” timewise) for all the reasons one might be. This is a beautiful, historic, walkable city with great restaurants, museums and hotels, and we showed in 2000 that the city works logistically for a convention.

    The convention arena is in South Philadelphia, but that’s an easy subway ride from the Center City hotels, and it’s actually better in some ways not to have the arena downtown. If you do, you end up with a huge security perimeter disrupting downtown business and creating traffic and pedestrian headaches. Better to leave downtown for hotels and fun, and make the convention a quick ride away.

    And they have special ideas in mind, such as reprising PoliticalFest, a special interactive experience at the Convention Center that was popular in 2000.

    The problem? Raising $40 million or so when you’re starting late, and there’s another huge event coming up that’s sucking up fundraising and civic energy — the Catholic World Meeting of Families in September  2015, which may draw a visit from the pope.

    Zach Stalberg, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy, told me what I was hearing privately from others.

    “There’s not a lot of enthusiasm in the business community [for contributing to the convention bid] as far as I can tell,” Stalberg said. Part of it, he said, is donor fatigue associated with the World Meeting of Families. Part of it is a general skepticism about whether the benefits of a national convention justify the effort.

     Donna Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting, says boosters of the political convention shouldn’t worry about her fundraising.

    “We don’t really see this is a competition,” she said. “This would be an international event, and we will be looking outside of Philadelphia into other parts of Pennsylvania, throughout the country, and frankly throughout the world for our fundraising.”

    True perhaps, but locals are being asked to help with the World Meeting. To cite one example, Brian Roberts, chairman of Comcast, arguably the city’s most prominent corporation, is co-chair of the World Meeting.

    What’s next?

    Later this summer or this fall, the site selection committee for the DNC will visit Philadelphia, and Washo and Rendell hope what they experience will blow the competition away.

    I remember the day when the Republican site selection committee visited the city for the 2000 convention. It was one of those brilliant spring days with bright sunshine and low humidity. The committee got a carriage ride around Old City at sunset that was utterly enchanting. I’m convinced weather played a role in Philadelphia getting that convention — though the host committtee’s game was spot on.

    If Philly impresses again, at least enough to beat Cleveland, we can start figuring out where all that money is going to come from.

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