A woman walks past the elephant logo of the Republican Party on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Dominick Reuter | AFP | Getty Images
Months of tension with North Carolina officials culminated in the GOP deciding to pull its national convention from Charlotte, just three months before it was scheduled to take place there.
The Republican National Convention is now scheduled for Jacksonville, Florida, in August.
The move, pushed by President Donald Trump, leaves only weeks to prepare for a grand-scale convention that typically attracts tens of thousands of people and takes years to plan. Past convention organizers are skeptical that the GOP will be able to pull off an event of such scale on short notice.
“My personal opinion is planning a traditional convention of the size and scale that you normally see in a two-month period is not possible,” said Joe Roman, former vice president of the Cleveland Host Committee, which organized the 2016 convention. “There are so many dots that have to get connected to pull this off.”
Neither planning nor preparation appeared to concern Trump, who repeatedly threatened to move the convention out of North Carolina because of social distancing guidelines that would have severely restricted the number of participants during the four-day event scheduled to start Aug. 24.
Putting on a successful convention of this magnitude is a team effort between the GOP, the federal government, and the host committee that organizes it. That committee is usually made up of individuals who have had a key role in shaping the city that’s preparing to host the convention.
Since the announcement of the move last week, Jacksonville convention organizers have begun to hustle to make arrangements for funding and prepare an adequate venue. The Jacksonville host committee did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.
Under more normal circumstances, a city that’s itching to host either the Republican National Convention or the Democratic National Convention will put together a bid for review, outlining the reasons why that city is the best choice.
For previous conventions, host committees began the planning process years before the nominee was even known.
“We were awarded the event about two years out,” said David Gilbert, former president and CEO of the Cleveland Host Committee. “There’s so much that goes into the bid. A lot of that information lays the groundwork. If you think about it in those terms, the planning really begins 2½ years out.”
After a bid is accepted, the committee has to put together funding to prepare the venue in which the convention will occur. That money also helps solidify transportation and pay people like construction workers who are making renovations happen.
Conventions like this can cost up to $100 million, according to multiple past organizers. The Department of Homeland Security fronts about half for security to protect high-profile politicians and provide technology enhancements. The rest of the money comes from private donations.
“The biggest venue need, which does eliminate a number of cities, is a top-tier competitive indoor arena — the kinds of arenas that cities traditionally host their NBA or NHL franchises in,” Roman said. But to turn that indoor arena into something like a concert hall is the real challenge. Construction workers have to reconfigure and add seating, build production studios, and create a “dramatic” stage “that pops,” he said.
“You go from playing basketball to hosting the equivalent of the Grammys. So you need a stage that is going to be front and center in front of hundreds of millions of people for four nights,” Roman said. “That’s not what a basketball arena was created to be.”
The members in a host committee, a nonpartisan group, have an incentive to bring a large-scale convention to their city to highlight its development and present it as a hot spot for economic growth and activity, Gilbert and Roman said. So whether it’s the DNC or the RNC, the committee is working to bring one of them home. Both teem with “political tourists” and thousands of credentialed media, likely bringing in a huge return on investment, the added. About 45,000 people, including 15,000 credentialed media, came to Cleveland in 2016 for the RNC.
The Republican National Committee announced the selection of Charlotte on July 20, 2018. Since then, Charlotte’s host committee, led by John Lassiter — a longtime Republican and former city council member — has been working to raise $70 million to prepare for the big event.
This involved months of outreach to local community members, groups and corporations to fund parts of the initiative.
Vance Opperman, former co-chair of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul host committee for the 2008 Republican National Convention, told CNBC he has “friends in North Carolina who are overjoyed that they’re not going to have it.”
Charlotte’s host committee did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.
Eight years ago, Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention, meaning the city had already undergone many infrastructural changes. That experience may have been an factor in the RNC’s decision to choose Charlotte for 2020.
“They have the muscle memory in Charlotte for knowing how to do this, and I could see where that would be extremely relevant,” Roman said.
But the weeks-long tussle between the GOP and North Carolina state officials revealed a disconnect in the vision of how the convention would play out.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, repeatedly insisted that the RNC come up with a plan that incorporated social distancing guidelines during the convention itself to avoid spreading the coronavirus. RNC executives submitted a proposal for holding a safe convention, listing precautions such as mandatory temperature scans ahead of entry and maintaining an ample supply of disinfectant in the arena.
But the proposal did not include a plan for encouraging social distancing and capping the number of people at the convention, leading to a stalemate between the two parties.
“As much as we want the conditions surrounding COVID-19 to be favorable enough for you to hold the Convention you describe in late August, it is very unlikely,” Cooper said in a letter to GOP officials. “Neither public health officials nor I will risk the health and safety of North Carolinians by providing the guarantee you seek.”
The outstanding contracts
While the president and the RNC have said the convention will move to Jacksonville, many loose ends remain, particularly related to contractual obligations between the city of Charlotte and the GOP.
Upon being selected as the convention site, the host committee signs a contract with the Republican National Committee, specifying the amount of money each party will contribute.
“I’ve got contracts that are a couple inches thick of what people promised to do and they’ve breached them,” host committee CEO Lassiter told The Charlotte Observer. “Now we’re trying to figure out how you work through the wind-down on an effort we’ve been focused on for two years.”
In addition to fulfilling the obligations of the convention itself, the committee also spent considerable time seeking venues and vendors for a delegate welcoming party and about 1,200 separate events, the Observer reported. The committee had recruited thousands of volunteers from all over the country to facilitate the efforts.
City Attorney Patrick Baker said in a statement that Charlotte had spent $14 million on the convention before the GOP pulled out. The city of Charlotte said in a separate statement that it “believes it is in the parties’ best interest to immediately unwind the agreements among them and hold the RNC accountable to fulfill all its outstanding obligations to the parties and make them whole.”
“We’d indicated publicly that we (already) raised over $50 million, a lot of that comes in over pledges,” Lassiter told the Observer. “We do not have enough cash on hand to pay all current obligations,” like contractor deals for the renovation of the Spectrum Center, where the convention was to be held.
Glenn McCall, a Republican National Committee official, predicted that more than 50,000 people would have attended the convention, and Charlotte would have seen a revenue of more than $200 million — money that would have gone out to restaurants, bars and other local businesses.
“I’m certain they have poured their hearts and souls into this,” Cleveland’s Gilbert said of Charlotte convention organizers. “Just knowing when you are putting so much of the community into hosting a major event, it’s tough. I really do sympathize.”
Florida was among the states that had pitched themselves as possible convention sites in response to Trump’s discontent with officials in North Carolina.
Upon speculation about where the convention might be moved, Joe Gruters, chair of the Florida Republican Party, told NBC News that it “would welcome the opportunity to host the Republican National Convention.” And Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a briefing that “Florida would love to have the RNC.”
The convention is now set to be held in the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, which normally has 15,000 seats and has been a concert venue for major acts including Rihanna and Paul McCartney.
The Republican convention will be the city’s first political convention of such scale.
A representative from the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena did not return a request for comment asking whether renovations for the convention had already begun.
The Republican National Committee praised DeSantis and Florida for “showing that their state and city is once again open for business,” RNC press secretary Mandi Merritt said in a statement to CNBC. “Jacksonville is a great city and we look forward to showcasing its wonderful businesses, venues and people.”
In the next three months, Jacksonville will likely have to strike deals with hoteliers to ensure that thousands of conventiongoers have suitable accommodations ahead of time.
In 2016, the Cleveland host committee asked hotels to guarantee 17,000 rooms. The convention site was situated downtown, and it was hard to secure hotel rooms solely in the downtown area, Roman said. But now, because of the pandemic, fewer people are traveling out of state or to Florida, likely leaving many hotels under capacity and eager for business.
When asked about preparations for the convention, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry told CNBC that the city has secured “over 10,000 hotel rooms” and expects the convention “to bring an economic impact of more than $100 million to our city.”
But with just months to go before the convention, organizers must take into account not just the short amount of time they have to get all aspects together, but also how the pandemic and protests will impact the event.
The Republican National Committee has indicated that it has confidence organizers will be able to pull off the convention.
“The RNC Convention team is highly skilled and is working around the clock to ensure a first rate experience,” a national party official told CNBC, speaking on condition of anonymity.