Democrats flying in to check out Columbus for convention

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO
Ohioans stand out at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Columbus hopes to host the 2016 convention.

August 4, 2014

The delegation selecting the site of the 2016 Democratic National Convention will be in town this week to take a look at what Columbus has to offer.

They'll be looking at transportation options, meeting sites and hotels. High on the list of considerations is, perhaps surprisingly, breakfast.

"Every state delegation normally has a breakfast meeting that everyone is required to attend," said Bill DeMora, a member of the state's Democratic Party and a consultant for the city's bid to host the 2016 convention.

"We've plotted it out, and there's enough space for every state delegation to have a breakfast meeting at their hotel or at a place next to their hotel," he said.

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Dining options will be just one of the many things Columbus 2016 officials will boast about to the 12 members of the site-selection committee during their two-day visit Wednesday and Thursday. Columbus 2016 is composed of local political and community leaders.

These leaders will tout how quick and easy it is to get from Port Columbus to Downtown, the proximity of the convention center to Nationwide Arena, the scores of hotels, restaurants and bars within walking distance, and the city's diversity, Downtown parks and growing population and workforce.

"We have them for 40 to 42 hours, and we'll show them Columbus can host their convention and is vibrant and alive and diverse," DeMora said.

They'll also spend some time educating out-of-towners who might know little about the city.

"Historically, people don't think about us as the third-largest state capital and don't know we have the largest concentration per capita of corporate headquarters," said Alex Fischer, CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a coalition of local CEOs. "This can sometimes get lost in the negative stereotypes we all know aren't true."

Columbus faces stiff competition from the four other cities wooing the Democrats, whose 35,000 to 40,000 attendees are expected to provide a $150 million to $200 million economic boost to the winning metropolis.

The Democrats visited Birmingham, Ala., on July 21 and 22 and will visit New York on Aug. 11 and 12, then Philadelphia on Aug. 13 and 14 before heading to Phoenix on Sept. 10 and 11.

After that, the committee might narrow down the field as it has done in the past. Or, it could just wait and eliminate all but the selected city, according to Lily Adams, a DNC spokeswoman.

"It's a fluid process," she said.

Opinions are divided on whether Cleveland landing the 2016 Republican convention helps or hurts the Columbus bid.

"I think Columbus' chances went up when Cleveland was chosen by Republicans," said Sen. Sherrod Brown.

"It's not about political party to us," he said. "It's really about Ohio, and this will be such a great shot in the arm."

Democratic political strategist Mary Anne Marsh disagrees.

"I think the conventional wisdom was, once Republicans picked Cleveland, the chances for Columbus slipped," she said.

"It depends on what message Democrats are looking to convey in 2016," she said. "Ohio is going to be a battleground. Democrats want to win it; they always want to win it. They don't want to cede Ohio to Republicans." When the Republicans visited Cleveland, city officials promoted the city as a unique mixture of art, culture and rock 'n' roll.

The visit here begins when committee members land at Port Columbus and walk through the $80 million renovation project that is expected to be completed by 2016.

"We'll have buses pick them up, and it's eight minutes to Downtown," DeMora said, adding the drive is longer in the four other cities.

"And Philly's convention center is downtown and the arena's a long way away in South Philly," he said. "In New York, the arena is in Brooklyn and they're using the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. Can you imagine how long it will take to get there at rush hour?"

There will be a pep rally in front of Nationwide Arena at 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday, hosted by Mayor Michael B. Coleman and former Gov. Ted Strickland.

"We're circulating the word wildly on social media, but we have no idea how many people will be there ... maybe thousands," said Beth Ervin, spokeswoman for Experience Columbus, the city's convention and visitor's bureau.

The agenda for the rest of the visit here is being kept under wraps at the request of the Democrats. But some of the agenda is obvious.

"Essentially, it's a technical site visit, and they don't want a lot of pomp and circumstance," said Tyneisha Harden, spokeswoman for Coleman. "They want to see the arena and convention center and check out the hotels and make sure we have all the things we said we have and can accommodate thousands of delegates."

The committee will show off the Hilton Columbus Downtown and Hyatt Regency Columbus - hotels that are connected to the convention center - and emphasize that there's enough hotel space within I-270 to house everyone.

"We plotted it out, and none of the hotels are more than 18 minutes away from the convention center, even Polaris," DeMora said, adding that this wasn't the case in Charlotte, N.C., during the 2012 Democratic convention.

Ohio Stadium is also part of the pitch.

"What better way to energize Ohio voters than an acceptance speech at Ohio Stadium with 100,000 people," DeMora said. "It would be huge and historic."

City Council President Andrew J. Ginther is convinced that the Democrats will be impressed with Columbus.

"All our national research shows folks who have never been here don't have a strong opinion about Columbus one way or the other," he said. "But once they get here, they fall in love with the place. I feel really good about our chances."