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More Than Money, It’s Image That’s Earned by Convention Host Cities

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When cities decide to open arms wide to sequined elephants and donkey neckties, funny hats and velvet paintings of past presidents, they’re rarely in it just for the money.

Yes, national political conventions bring in the bucks; so do a lot of other expositions, the ones with doctors and sportswear buyers, engineers and plastics professionals.

But what the Republicans and Democrats are able to deliver that housewares salesmen and hairstylists cannot is attention, and that’s what this is all about: Exposure. Image. The world’s eyes trained on your skyline.

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Especially for America’s second-tier municipalities, it is about proof that a city has managed to erase past problems and join the big leagues. It also is about tangible costs and intangible payoffs, for not everyone buys into the conventional wisdom that paying hard dollars now will bring a tourism boom later.

“If you’re an underrated city . . . a political convention is your chance to get into the first tier of cities, to be seen as the equal of New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago,” said Rick Mansur, president of the San Diego Hotel-Motel Assn.

For San Diego, hosting the 1996 Republican National Convention helped ease the lingering civic hurt from 1972, when the Republicans dumped the city just 90 days before the convention was to open and switched the GOP’s big party to Miami.

Atlanta believes that getting the Democratic National Convention in 1988 helped the city land the Super Bowl in 1994 and the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996. Having a successful political convention in 1996 helped Chicago overcome the painful legacy of the violent 1968 Democratic convention.

“The convention gave us a chance to showcase a city that has matured, both in its skyline and its sophistication, since 1972,” said lobbyist and former San Diego City Council member Scott Harvey. “San Diego has always been seen as a cul-de-sac geographically and politically. The convention allowed us to show the world that San Diego is major league.”

Intangible Benefits Repay Investment

And what did that civic salve cost? More than $13 million, about $6 million directly from city coffers. But that, convention planners and local politicians say, is not the point.

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“We’re a convention town,” says Leslie Fox, executive director of Chicago ’96. “I think that at the time the [Democratic] Convention was here, it was No. 8 on a list of size and impact. But anyone who compares it is missing the boat.”

Gerald Bartels, president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, put it this way in his stock speech about why his city wanted the Democrats in 1988: “This event will focus more national and world attention on the Atlanta area than any event in our history, including Sherman’s campfire.”

In fact, Atlanta viewed the 1988 convention as the first salvo in a decade-long fight to position itself on the world’s radar as home to more than magnolia blossoms and Tara-seeking tourists.

“In the short term, this is just another convention with about a $60-million short-term economic boost,” Bartels admitted in 1987. “When it’s all done, we’ll be pleased to have broken even. But the longer term is what’s really important.”

San Francisco, the West Coast’s glamour girl, historically has had less to overcome than other metropolises. Still, many there believe that the successful 1984 Democratic convention is one reason the Moscone Center is just too booked to host another such exhibition any time soon.

Dale Hess, currently executive vice president of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, helped arrange the convention in 1984. At the time, the city spent about $6 million just to refurbish the then-new center to house tens of thousands of delegates and journalists.

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Those improvements were eventually torn out. The city spent $10 million to $13 million in all on the Democrats, displaced regular tourists during the busy summer season and shoved aside three or four other conventions.

And was delighted to do so.

“It was a fabulous experience,” said George Kirkland, who headed San Francisco’s bureau at the time. Kirkland is president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau and worked to woo the Democrats to Los Angeles in 2000.

“There is an extraordinary amount of hospitality conducted during the period,” he said, noting that the Democrats probably brought a short-term economic boost to local business of as much as $70 million. “The other piece that’s a godsend is the media.”

Not everyone buys the argument that the 30,000 or so delegates and others who descend on a city during a convention provide a publicity bonanza. Heywood Sanders, a professor of urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, acknowledges that there is some publicity value.

“But what is the magnitude of that impact, especially over time?” asks Sanders, who has studied the convention and visitors business. “How many people can remember where the two last conventions were, or, more importantly, the two before that? . . . It’s very difficult to argue that in the year or two after a national political convention, there is a massive boost in tourism.”

So why host such an expensive extravaganza? His answer is threefold: First, political conventions are a “‘short-term plum.” They give city officials a sense of doing something to control their destiny. And simply entering the competition to get a political convention “structures a contest that mayors can win and claim credit for,” he says.

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With multimillion-dollar price tags, Sanders says, those are dubious prizes.

An Expense for Host Cities

In a report to the Federal Elections Commission, San Diego disclosed that it spent $12.8 million on the convention--through the city, the Convention Center Corp. which runs the publicly owned center, and the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. The largest single expense was police overtime.

The $12.8-million figure is not all-inclusive--it does not, for example, include $300,000 in legal fees from a hassle with the American Civil Liberties Union over regulations involving protesters.

Along with the $12.8 million, a host committee formed by the city collected $18.5 million in cash and in-kind donations to help stage the convention. Among the big donors were AT & T, Amway Corp., newspaper publisher Helen Copley and Chargers football team owner Alex Spanos. Tax laws gave the donations the same tax breaks afforded to charities helping the poor and downtrodden.

For all the money and effort by public agencies, the city of San Diego’s coffers were fattened by an additional $2.7 million in hotel-motel taxes and sales taxes over what the city could have expected without the GOP convention.

But no one really minded. The real profit from political conventions goes to the private sector. Number crunchers at the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau put spending by GOP conventioneers, the press and others attracted to the convention at $81 million, helped along by 800-plus parties and a five-day minimum stay in hotels.

Convis believes the real impact is double the $81 million, because every dollar spent in town is later spent again by its recipient.

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“It was a very big convention with very good spending habits,” said Convis President Reint Reinders.

In the weeks after the 1996 Republican convention closed, a national poll showed an uptick in the percentage of Americans with a favorable attitude toward San Diego. It also showed a change in the perception that links San Diego primarily with the San Diego Zoo, the Navy and the beach.

Instead, San Diego was seen more as a place for night life fun and frolic, music to the ears of the restaurant and bistro industries. Nine months later, a follow-up poll showed that public attitudes toward San Diego had “staying power” as the convention became a memory.

When all is said and done, however, a political convention is not the Super Bowl, which remains the mother of all big-spending American events. The 1998 Super Bowl brought San Diego $130 million in private spending--which had a multiplied impact of $295 million, according to the NFL--and only cost the general fund about $3 million.

For all the hype, not every business prospers during political conventions. Some restaurants in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, adjacent to the convention center, say the big crowds scared away their regular customers.

“It was more of a hindrance than a help to us,” said Frank Dick, bar manager at Trattoria Portobello. “We got two or three days’ business but it made other people stay away for a week.”

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The restaurant lament is a nationwide dirge. On the one hand, caterers make out like bandits, because political conventions are filled with hosted parties, grand affairs thrown by corporate sponsors for everyone from the media to the delegates.

On the other, why buy food at a restaurant when you can get it free at a party? In addition, most convention business is done during prime time, which coincides with dinner hour. So restaurateurs who add staff as a result of pre-convention hype tend to be disappointed by the results.

Mixed Results for Businesses

In San Francisco in 1984, all delegates were invited one night to parties in private homes throughout the city. On another, Willie Brown--now mayor, then Assembly speaker--threw a bash called “Oh What a Night,” which was described in published reports as “reputedly the biggest party in San Francisco history.”

Antone Sabella, owner of A. Sabella’s restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf, has one word for the financial returns of the 1984 Democratic convention: “Awful”

“Normally, we’d be full at that time of year, completely full. As I remember, [business] was probably off by 60% to 70%,” Sabella said. “‘You gear up because you believe all the hype, because you think it’s going to be full. So you’re waiting with a big staff and--nothing.”

Nothing inside the restaurants. Outside is another story: Thousands of journalists yawning over the declining news value of conventions that showcase candidates who have had the nomination in the bag for months.

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“The reporters eventually get bored and go out to the city,” says San Francisco’s Hess. “For seven to 10 days, you have every news show originating from here. The lead in and sign off are beautiful shots of the city. It was a real plus for us for exposure world wide.”

Still questioning the value of a political convention? Local boosters in San Diego three years ago stopped doubting when they heard Larry King tell his CNN audience: “We’re back in San Diego, and if there is a prettier city, you’re going to have to go a long way to find it. And the weather is perfect.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Convention Index

The Democratic National Convention is expected to come to Los Angeles in 2000. A look at some of the numbers:

30,000+ Participants in the Democratic National Convention

5,500 Volunteers needed for event

15,000 Members of media covering mid- to late-August convention

$140 million Estimated revenue to be generated in the region

$1 billion Value of free media coverage generated for Los Angeles during the four-day event

54 California electoral votes (20% of votes needed to elect president)

1960 Last year Los Angeles hosted Democratic National Convention

20,000 Hotel rooms needed within 30 minutes travel time of the convention during rush hour

1111 Address of Staples Center on South Figueroa Street, main site of the convention

Sources: L.A. 2000 committee, Times research

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