December 12, 2013
In an era marked by a good bit of political dysfunction, there is something local Democrats and Republicans can agree on: Bringing one of the national political conventions to Columbus in 2016 is a great idea.
While the city hasn’t committed to making an official bid to host either party’s convention, Experience Columbus, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, is leaning toward one.
More important, Experience Columbus and city officials believe the region is now capable of hosting an event that could draw 45,000 visitors to the city, something that they said was not the case a few years ago.
“To even be in a position to take a shot at this is something that needs to be said. That’s very exciting,” said Brian Ross, CEO of Experience Columbus. “This is a huge opportunity for the community to put itself in the national and international spotlight. Those opportunities don’t come around very often.”
Experience Columbus is one of several groups, including the city, the Columbus Partnership and the political parties, that have formed Columbus 2016 to explore bidding on the 2016 political conventions. Once both parties issue formal requests for bids, the region will look at whether one or both fit into the area’s available hotel, convention-center, arena and event space.
A committee would be appointed to work with Experience Columbus to draft a formal bid, apply and, if the region makes the short list, host tours for the national selection committees.
Ross credited Mayor Michael B. Coleman, a Democrat, with leading the charge to bring a convention to Columbus.
Coleman spokesman Dan Williamson said Coleman returned from the Democratic convention in 2012 in Charlotte, N.C., believing that Columbus is capable of hosting such an event.
“Charlotte put on a great convention,” Williamson said of the mayor’s impression. “We can, too. There’s not much that they have that we don’t have.”
Besides, Williamson said, presidential candidates pay a lot of attention to Ohio, given its importance as a swing state.
“They’re here anyway. Why not have a convention?” Williamson said.
The addition of the Hilton Columbus Downtown, coupled with other hotel projects and adequate convention space, has changed the mayor’s opinion about being able to host a convention, he said.
“We believe we have a lot to offer,” Williamson said. “Whether or not we are successful, we are in the game this time around, so we’re going to go for it.”
Columbus’ metropolitan area has 1.9 million people, fewer than Charlotte and Tampa, Fla., which hosted the Republican convention last year, but it has about the same number of hotel rooms as Charlotte and more than Tampa, according to Experience Columbus data. It also has twice as much convention space as either city.
But there is more to it than adequate convention space and hotel rooms. Transportation is critical, and the region would have to show it can raise about $50 million from the public and private sector to cover costs tied to the event.
“There is no question that they are capable of putting it on. A lot of it depends on who you are competing with,” said Jo Ann Davidson, a former Ohio House speaker and chairwoman of the site-selection committee for the Republican National Committee that chose Minneapolis.
She has met with Columbus officials to talk about a bid. She wouldn’t endorse Columbus but said the region has good things going for it — first-class hotels, adequate meeting space for the delegations and enthusiastic support from local political and business leaders.
But she dismissed the notion that any city would be picked for political expediency.
“Political location is not the key factor and can’t overcome a clear lack of facilities and other things to have a successful convention,” she said.
Ross said whether Columbus ultimately puts in bids for one or both conventions depends on what both parties say they’ll need when the bid packages go out. That could be early next year.
“We need to make sure of what they’re looking for and what their needs are before we start officially bidding on things,” he said. “We also need to be sure that this is something that the community will be supportive of and work collaboratively to make it happen and make it successful."
One challenge a bid would face is the lack of direct flights to and from Port Columbus to cities that would be sending large groups for a convention, he said. Experience Columbus has been talking with Port Columbus officials about getting more direct flights, at least for around the time of the convention.
Airport officials say they are looking forward to helping the region bring a convention to the city in 2016.
“We’re confident that we will be able to meet the air-service travel needs for the estimated 50,000 attendees,” said Angie Tabor, spokeswoman for the Columbus Regional Airport Authority.
If Columbus proceeds with a bid, it looks like it will have plenty of competition. Cleveland, a finalist for the Republican convention that ended up in Minneapolis, has indicated its interest, and Davidson said Cincinnati will be invited to bid as well.
Outside of Ohio, media accounts have indicated interest from St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.; Phoenix; Las Vegas; Charlotte, N.C. (this time for the Republicans); New Orleans; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; Nashville, Tenn.; Denver; Detroit; Chicago; and Salt Lake City.
Republican and Democratic leaders in Ohio say they are ready to do their part to bring a convention to at least the state, if not Columbus.
“While America’s eyes are on us every election night, a national convention would bring the nation’s eyes to Ohio for multiple nights in primetime and would bring millions of dollars in economic activity,” said Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Committee. “We will do what we can to make that happen.”
Ohio Democratic leader Chris Redfern said Columbus would make a great choice for the convention.
“It’s a city that is home to significant business, a sport franchise, and there is a college down the street,” he said of Ohio State University. “It is a city that has hosted large events and has the transportation network and hotels to host a convention the size of the Democratic National Convention.”