Local News
12:00 am
Sun May 25, 2014

GOP convention here? Well, there's just no place to put it

In the end, Cincy2016, the group trying to bring the 2016 Republican National Convention to Cincinnati, had just about everything they needed to host such a massive event.

Everything except an arena capable of holding the convention.

Hotel space? Check. Transportation for delegates and guests? Check. Plenty of amenities such as bars and restaurants within walking distance of downtown hotels? Check.

But the 40-year-old U.S. Bank Arena – plenty big enough for a minor league hockey team, circuses, ice shows and hard rock concerts – just couldn’t cut the mustard.

Not without an investment in the neighborhood of $20 million to fix its shortcomings. And that was something the locals couldn’t promise to the Republican National Committee (RNC) site selection committee.

The bottom line, said Hamilton County commissioner Greg Hartmann, an active member of Cincy2016, they “couldn’t make the technical requirements for the arena.”

“We got a long way toward landing this convention,’’ Hartmann told WVXU’s Tana Weingartner Thursday. “But we need to do some work related to the arena.”

A lot of work, actually.

Cincinnati was bounced, along with Las Vegas, from the final list of six cities in a very odd way on Thursday.

Much of the city was on pins and needles Thursday afternoon waiting for the RNC to release its lists of finalists; and hoping that Cincinnati would have been on it.

But word leaked out Thursday afternoon that Cincy2016 had withdrawn its bid for the convention; and, about an hour later, the RNC announced that Dallas, Denver, Kansas City and Cleveland were the four finalists that would receive follow-up visits in June by the entire RNC site selection committee.

It was clear that Cincy2016 got word earlier that it would not be a finalist; and the RNC asked that they withdraw their bid – a somewhat awkward way of trying to allow the Cincinnati group to save face.

So, on Thursday, the bid was withdrawn; and the RNC announced its finalists.

In their heart of hearts, many of those in Cincy2016, must have known that the biggest hang-up would be the convention venue – US Bank Arena.

“The facility needs updating, but we knew that all along,’’ Hartman said.

Members of Cincy2016 thought the arena met the qualifications laid out in in the RNC document sent out to all the prospective host cities laying out what they would have to do and provide in order to land the convention.

Then, on April 29, an eight-member subcommittee of the 17-member RNC site selection came to Cincinnati for an initial visit. They were treated to breakfast at the Metropolitan Club, and given tours of US Bank Arena, the Duke Energy Convention Center and downtown hotels.

They were also briefed by local officials on technical aspects of holding a convention that draws about 50,000 people to the host city – security, transportation, and, most importantly, whether or not Cincy2016 could raise approximately $50 million to host the convention. The $50 million sounds like a lot, but the economic benefits from hosting a convention can be enormous – something in the neighborhood of $200 million pumped into the local economy.

Then, after visiting Cincinnati and seeing US Bank Arena, the site selection “changed the rules,’’ according to one member of Cincy2016.

One of the things the RNC requested – the major thing – was 40 private boxes, about twice what the arena has now.

Sources in the committee say there were also concerns about the floor space and the enormous riser that holds TV cameras and their operators from the U.S. networks and networks from all over the world. Another question: Would there be enough space in the seating area on both sides of the convention podium for the massive number of working press tables and seats, where reporters from all over the world file their stories?

The elevators, the concourse and the back-stage area behind the podium were also issues for the 40-year-old arena.

Thursday, the Nederlander Co., which owns US Bank Arena, put out a statement about Cincinnati being bounced because of its property.

“Although US Bank Arena met all the initial requirements from the convention’s request for proposal, additional convention specific criteria was added after the site visit and proved to be difficult to facilitate,’’ the statement said.

“These challenges relate to temporary modifications such as TV platforms that were not easily remedied,’’ the statement went on to say.

So, US Bank Arena, as it is now, is not capable of hosting a national political convention. If, back in 1997, the Hamilton County commissioners and the Cincinnati Bengals had included it in their lease agreement for what eventually became Paul Brown Stadium, there might have been a retractable roof on the stadium and it would be more than adequate to hold a big event – a national political convention, the NCAA Final Four, you name it. But that didn’t happen.

So, Cincinnati is stuck with a 40-year-old arena that would cost upwards of $20 million to bring up to standards. Or build a new, NBA-style arena, which isn’t likely happen.

Still, the local Republicans and their allies aren’t giving up. They are vowing to try for the 2020 convention; and pull out all the stops to try to find funding to upgrade US Bank Arena.

Putting taxpayers’ money into it is not an option, Hartmann said.

“Obviously, putting public funds into a private facility is a problem; and we couldn’t do that,’’ Hartmann said.

Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party and a member of Cincy2016, said that, despite the disappointment of not getting the 2016 convention, the city should set its sights on the 2020 GOP convention.

“This time, we should get an earlier start than we did this time around,’’ Triantafilou said. “And if this starts a community conversation on what to do about US Bank area, that’s a good thing.”