An unconventional convention: Finally, the RNC is in Charlotte. Kind of.

An unconventional convention: Finally, the RNC is in Charlotte. Kind of.
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After more than two years of arguing about the Republican National Convention, it’s finally here. But while it has evolved dramatically over the last few months, this RNC will come with very little of the fanfare typical of political conventions.

If a boisterous, in-person convention is a sold-out stadium rock concert, this year’s mostly virtual RNC is an acoustic living-room performance, live streamed.

The intrigue got a boost over the weekend, though, as news came that President Trump will in fact be here Monday. He’s expected to land in Charlotte sometime before noon, though it’s unclear whether he’ll come into Uptown. WFAE reports he’ll only briefly be in Charlotte before moving on to Fletcher, near Asheville.

That extra oomph aside, Charlotte city leaders have lost a big reason they voted for the RNC in the first place.

Originally, around 50,000 visitors were expected for the RNC, resulting in millions in economic impact. Another roughly 15,000 media members from around the world would have been here, too. At a time when the hospitality industry is hurting badly, this would’ve been a welcomed boost, business owners have said.

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Charlotte won’t have its chance at shining on the world’s stage.

[Full Agenda story: What to expect with the scaled-back RNC in Charlotte this month]

Instead, we’ll have 336 delegates in town, six from each state and territory. They’ll cast proxy votes for all the other delegates who would have come — roughly 2,500 total.

The RNC and other staffers have also been in town over the weekend for meetings, drawing the event total to around 1,000, organizers estimate. The delegates planned to stay just one night in town, Sunday at the Westin, and then renominate President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Monday morning. (Trump will accept the nomination Thursday night from the White House).

The Republican National Committee had a few meetings in town over the weekend. Each night, protesters walked through Charlotte’s streets beginning on Friday. Confrontations between police and protesters became intense every night, and resulted in the arrests of at least eight people on Friday and Saturday, according to CMPD. And with a series of tweets and a back and forth with Governor Cooper over the summer, Trump certainly made the city wonder what was on and what was off.

In other words, we have had plenty of the tension of a big convention, without the financial windfall.

There’s a takeaway here for cities looking to bid on future political conventions, says Eric Heberlig, professor of political science at UNC-Charlotte.

“The lesson for cities in 2024 is that they’re taking a risk by putting a bid in for these conventions. We got yanked around in every way possible and are not getting any economic impact or PR benefit from it.” Heberlig says.

“We jumped through all the hoops both to do the original planning and to pull off basically their party business meeting — and get no benefit from it.”

For two years, the Charlotte 2020 Host Committee worked to raise tens of millions of dollars to put on a festive event that would highlight the best of the city. For the last three months, the committee has been unwinding all of that work.

All told, the committee ended up raising roughly $51 million, and it collected about $38 million of that, says CEO John Lassiter. Organizers spent about $20 million on a range of expenses, including construction, special events, transportation, and catering.

On Friday, the committee announced plans to donate $3.2 million “to support the community that’s been so good to us,” Lassiter tells the Agenda.

“We ran our organization like a business and made sure that we thought about how we wanted to finish where we could leave our community better than we found it.”

Here’s a quick rundown of where the money will go:

  • Donating sales from all of the assets that the committee has collected over the years — including furniture, office supplies, TVs, monitors, and computers — to organizations such as Classroom Central, Habitat for Humanity, Beds for Kids, and Purple Heart Homes.
  • Allocating $500,000 to a small business grant program specifically for Charlotte’s hospitality and tourism industry. The committee is working with the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority now to put together an application process. “They first didn’t get the convention, and then they had Covid,” Lassiter says of Charlotte’s tourism industry. “It’s a double whammy that has impacted their ability to operate.”
  • Donating $200,000 worth of branding and marketing assets — hundreds of videos and photos showing off different parts of Charlotte — to the city’s economic development department to use for business recruitment.
  • Creating an economic development challenge grant of $2 million. The committee will work with economic development groups throughout the region and state to come up with an application process.

“No one’s hair caught on fire and no vendor went unpaid,” Lassiter says. “We never lost track of our core mission, which was to showcase our city and our two states and to illustrate why this is a great place to do business, a great place to raise a family.”

This week, you probably won’t even notice there is a political convention going on at all unless you are in Uptown.

If that’s the case, look out for road closures around the Charlotte Convention Center. Closures took effect at 6 p.m. Sunday and will last until 6 a.m. on Tuesday, according to RNC officials. As a heads-up: You can’t park on any of the closed streets, either. Here’s what the road closures will look like:

Road closure map during the RNC (courtesy of the Republican National Convention)

Road closure map during the RNC (courtesy of the Republican National Convention)

Fence around the Charlotte Convention Center during the RNC

Fence around the Charlotte Convention Center during the RNC

Last week, crews installed a fence around the convention center. Also last week, you may have noticed a helicopter flying at low altitude — that was the National Nuclear Security Administration measuring background radiation.

For security purposes, this week the light rail will not run between Carson Station in South End and the 7th Street Station Uptown. Instead, CATS will run a “LYNX Connector” bus from the two stations.

Additionally, the following bus routes will experience service impacts: Local routes 5 (Sprinter), 35 and 16; Express routes 40X, 46X, 52X, 64X, 65X and 74X; MetroRAPID routes 48X, 53X, 63X, and 77X.

And expect at least one demonstration Monday. Beginning at 4:30 p.m. at Marshall Park will be a press conference, call to action, and block party featuring speakers like local NAACP president Corine Mack and activist Kass Ottley. 

During demonstrations over the weekend, CMPD deployed pepper spray and arrested multiple protesters for various offenses, from impeding traffic to assaulting officers.

This year’s convention will likely be remembered mostly for what it could’ve been.

When the Democratic National Convention came to town in 2012, Jon Stewart staged “The Daily Show” tapings at ImaginOn. Actresses Scarlett Johannson and Kerry Washington gave impassioned speeches at the Time Warner Cable Arena, now called the Spectrum Center, in support of Barack Obama. James Taylor performed “Carolina in My Mind.”

For this week’s convention, there would’ve been a slew of parties and events with famous GOP supporters, from Bill O’Reilly to maybe even Toby Keith and Britney Spears, the Observer wrote. Hospitality industry leaders even hoped to convince N.C. lawmakers to let bars stay open until 4 a.m. during the RNC.

But no one could have predicted the twists and turns the convention took over the years.

Charlotte first started considering a bid for the RNC back in early 2018. At the time, only one city council member, LaWana Mayfield, opposed the idea of hosting.

There was surprisingly little conversation about the convention throughout the spring and early summer of 2018. But then on July 2, new council member Braxton Winston set up in front of a camera with the skyline behind him and recorded a Facebook video that shook up everything.

“Many of my constituents that have contacted me believe that the values of this party do not represent the spoken priorities of this city,” Winston said. “We would be asking the people of Charlotte to host a celebration for a brand of politics that has been highly divisive and some would say dangerous to our community.”

By that point, Charlotte was the clear front-runner. Las Vegas put in the only other known bid.

Public opposition to hosting grew after Winston’s video, but Mayor Vi Lyles continued her support, calling out the convention’s potential to create jobs and facilitate bipartisan dialogue.

“If Charlotte is the site for the RNC, we can show that our city is about inclusion and leverage it as an opportunity to demonstrate our values of respect while honoring our differences,” Lyles wrote in an op-ed in July 2018.

Days later, on July 16, 2018, city council heard public comments about the RNC in a meeting that featured more than 130 speakers and lasted almost four hours.

Business leaders — including restaurant owners, taxi cab operators, and consultants — who say they supported the DNC in 2012 asked council to support the RNC for the financial boost it would provide the city. Longtime residents who oppose Donald Trump begged council to vote no.

“In business we put our personal feelings aside and we execute what’s best for the bottom line,” said speaker Darius Little.

“Literally no other city in America wants the RNC. That is the free market screaming red flashing alarm bells at Charlotte City Council today,” said speaker Dan Roselli, founder of Packard Place.

Ultimately, city council voted 6-5 to support the bid. Larken Egleston, who represents District 1, was the last to vote, breaking the 5-5 tie while several of his Democratic colleagues and supporters groaned.

Outside that afternoon, protesters vowed to run a fierce primary competition to get Egleston out of office the next year.

But it didn’t happen. In fact, not much happened over the next year or so. Lyles found herself explaining the decision in speeches all over town, and people grumbled on social media whenever Trump tweeted something outlandish — See, this is what we invited to Charlotte, or some version of it, seemed to pop up on social media every other week or so.

Then, though, last summer, a crowd at Trump’s rally at East Carolina University chanted “send her back!” about Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota. Trump did little to diffuse the chants.

Soon after, Charlotte city council passed a resolution denouncing the chants and much of Trump’s recent rhetoric about immigrants as racist and xenophobic. Some argued that Charlotte should rescind its support for the convention.

Then in March of this past year, a different sort of opposition rose up: Coronavirus began its spread across North Carolina. State officials in May limited the size of outdoor gatherings to 25, and indoor gatherings to 10. These limits called into question Charlotte’s ability to host a convention with 50,000 people.

In a public letter war over pandemic safety protocol, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and Trump went back and forth for weeks about the convention. Trump wanted to host a rowdy convention with 19,000 people packed into the Spectrum Center. Cooper said he couldn’t guarantee a full convention given the state’s worsening Covid-19 trends.

So in June, Trump announced that the convention would no longer be in Charlotte.

And just like that, what Charlotte spent more than two years arguing over, Jacksonville, Florida, landed in a matter of weeks.

Jacksonville would host the convention’s celebratory events, including the acceptance speech, RNC officials said earlier this summer.

Charlotte organizers canceled their plans for the Uptown arena. Local businesses clung onto hope for any remaining boost from the business meetings that would still occur here.

Meanwhile, as Jacksonville officials scrambled to prepare for the convention, coronavirus ravaged Florida. The mayor of Jacksonville began mandating masks. Coronavirus cases began to spike in the area, and residents reported that they thought it unsafe to hold a convention. In late July, Trump canceled the Jacksonville portion of the convention.

So, eyes are back on Charlotte. Sort of.

Heberlig, the UNC Charlotte professor, says that landing and (technically) hosting the RNC could be a talking point for city boosters looking to attract future large-scale events. But it won’t be the same as pulling of a logistically complex convention like the DNC in 2012.

“Any city can pull off a meeting of 300 people,” Heberlig says.


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