Counting the costs: Convention boosters promise a windfall that rarely materializes

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This year's Republican convention in New York City is expected to cost by some estimates up to $166 million. Federal taxpayers will pay nearly $65 million of the tab (with $50 million of that amount paying for security), while at least $27 million will come from city money. Private donations will pay for at least $64 million of the cost.

That’s a far cry from the last time New York City hosted a national nominating convention. In 1992, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president in Gotham. Back then, the entire convention cost only $38.3 million, with New York City and New York State paying for $21.1 million of the tab, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has widely touted the convention as an economic shot in the arm, particularly for an area still trying to recover from the economic hit it suffered after September 11, 2001. But there is vigorous dispute about whether hosting a convention yields monetary benefits for the hosts or is simply a very expensive promotional tool oriented toward luring future tourism and convention dollars.

Bloomberg pitched his city to both the Democratic and Republican parties in 2002, promising them millions of dollars worth of free security services courtesy of the New York Police and Fire Departments. In 2002, while he was trying to lure both parties’ quadrennial nominating conventions, city leaders were in the midst of coping with budget cuts and tax increases in what one newspaper called New York’s “worst budget crisis since the 1970s.”

That same year, Florida officials, who were trying to lure the GOP convention to Tampa-St. Petersburg, publicly debated whether they wanted to commit anywhere from $15-20 million of taxpayer money to host the event. Florida newspapers noted the contrast, and highlighted Bloomberg’s boosterism and public relations dance.

“New York’s looming $6.4 billion budget shortfall also may present problems for Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” reported the St. Petersburg Times. “Bloomberg announced plans to raise property taxes by 18 percent, even as he said he planned cuts to city services, including police and fire.”

But when the 2004 convention selection was made, city officials urged New Yorkers to see it as an extremely positive development. “This is an incredible boost for New York City and the Republican National Committee’s decision shows that if you want to promote your ideas and vision for the country, there’s no place better in the world to do it than New York City,” Bloomberg said in a press release after the announcement. “We got exactly what we wanted: The convention, the profound economic activity it generates, and all of good publicity for our city that comes with it.”

Then the real hard work of the planning began.

Security measures undertaken for the convention have been unlike those for any previous Republican nominating convention gathering. With tens of millions of federal and city dollars earmarked for security, convention organizers in the city of Ground Zero took on the task of fortifying the Big Apple. Among the items Newsday reported that the city acquired in anticipation of the event included metal detectors, high-tech surveillance technologies, bomb-sniffing dogs, hand-held sensors, hydraulic barriers, radiation detectors, X-ray bomb detectors, bio-chemical kits, night vision technology, antidotes to various bio-weapon ingredients and a mobile lab.

As in Boston, the Secret Service took charge of the security plans and worked with local officials to determine what would be closed and what would remain open and to whom. Among the safety measures to be undertaken during the convention are:

  • Closing more than 20 Manhattan city blocks to traffic during the convention, including portions of Seventh and Eighth Avenues from West 42nd to West 23rd Streets.
  • Limiting the use of some Penn Station and subway exits and entrances.
  • Restricting use of sidewalks in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden.
  • Limiting on-street parking, as well as garage parking because many neighborhood garages have been booked by private groups.
  • Subjecting to inspection all deliveries to businesses.
  • Detouring commuters taking trains from New Jersey into Manhattan to Hoboken, forcing them to transfer to different trains or ferries.

The New York Times reported in July that closing six of Penn Station’s eight exits would affect more than 600,000 commuters each day. The Village Voice reported that a memo from building management was left on the doormats of residents living in a 3,000-unit co-op building near Madison Square Garden warning them of the impact the convention would have on their day-to-day activities. “If at all possible, stay inside during the times the convention is in session,” and added, “Be sure to shop for extra food and water,” The Village Voice said.

When New Yorkers complained about some of the closings and potential negative impacts on the city because of the convention, Bloomberg said that the measures are “not that big a deal” and that complainers should “get a life,” according to the Associated Press.

Reflecting on the impact the Democratic convention had on rival city Boston, New York Times writers Michael Cooper and Michael Slackman had these pieces of advice for New York as it prepared to welcome the GOP:

  • Don’t expect a business bonanza. Fear of gridlock and efforts to tighten security led Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to urge many Bostonians to go on vacation or work from home during the convention . . . [T]he city’s great shopping streets and restaurant rows were eerily quiet.”
  • Don’t feed the delegates.” Delegates got free food at parties and events throughout the city, leaving restaurants virtually empty.

Of the 572 Democratic delegates Boston Globe reporters polled about their experiences in Boston during the July convention, 54 percent of them told the newspaper that they spent less than $500 during the week, while 73 percent said they stayed very close to their hotels and the convention center. “I’ve had a lot of free food, I absolutely admit that,” one Iowa delegate said. “And there’s been a ton of receptions. My God, those are open bars and open food. And I’m no fool. I’m as good as the next person. I’m going to take what’s offered.”

The real impact on New York City may begin to be assessed once all the bills for the convention start rolling in and Manhattan companies tally their receipts. For President Bush, the impact will likely be measured in a two-day Gallup poll immediately following his speech.

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