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Was hurricane threat an excuse to reject Tampa?

Storms were never an issue, says a member of the site-selection team for the 2008 GOP convention.

By JANET ZINK
Published September 29, 2006


TAMPA - When Republican leaders met to discuss the possibility of holding their 2008 convention in Tampa, hurricanes were never discussed, according to a member of the site-selection team.

Team member Sharon Day, a Republican from Broward County, said Thursday the issue arose only when Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, mentioned it just before a voice vote Wednesday.

The committee then chose Minneapolis-St. Paul over Tampa as the site for the GOP convention, scheduled for Sept. 1-4, 2008. Tampa bid organizers said Mehlman told them the threat of hurricanes cost them the convention.

By the time of Wednesday's vote, Day said, two other finalist cities - Cleveland and New York - weren't even on the table. New York was barely considered, and Cleveland was dismissed early because it provided sketchy information.

"Tampa had more than one supporter" including her, Day said. "The Tampa people did a wonderful job showing the committee what they could do."

The Republicans decided on a convention site weeks ahead of schedule, removing the Twin Cities from consideration by the Democrats, who were also looking at the area.

Rick Stafford, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Minnesota, said the Republicans stole their thunder.

The DNC's site selection team had visited the Minneapolis- St. Paul area five times this year and three times this month and were deep in negotiations over "nitty-gritty" details of the contract, Stafford said.

He said he was under the impression the DNC was going to seal the deal this Tuesday and announce it Friday. He said someone tipped off Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., a key player in the Minneapolis bid for the GOP convention.

"Up until their announcement, the Republican National Committee had no serious negotiations with the host city," Stafford said.

The GOP had previously said it wouldn't choose a city until after the November election. Mehlman could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Jeremy Hanson, a spokesman for Minneapolis' Democratic Mayor R.T. Rybak, said the cities had been working closely with both parties.

"We thought that we would probably hear a decision from the Democrats first, but time lines can always change. It does appear the Republicans sped up their time line," he said.

Day said she was surprised hurricanes became an issue given that everyone knows the storms are a possibility in Florida.

"If we knew it was going to be a deciding factor, we should have never asked them to put their hearts and souls into it," she said. "Since we left Minneapolis, there have been two tornadoes. Let's be real."

The tornadoes in late August and mid September killed two people and damaged hundreds of homes.

Paul Catoe, president and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, remained bitter Thursday and said he believes Minneapolis was coached on its bid.

"We heard that they went back to Minneapolis and said you need to sweeten this, you need to sweeten that," he said.

Karyn Gruenberg, vice president of marketing for Meet Minneapolis, said that after meeting with RNC officials, the host committee adjusted its budget, increasing its fundraising goal from $37-million to $57-million. Tampa had a fundraising goal of $40-million and budgeted $24-million in public money.

Day said score sheets provided by RNC consultants showed Minneapolis-St. Paul with a slight edge. Details were not available, but information provided by convention officials in both cities shows some comparisons.

Minneapolis-St. Paul reserved 20,000 hotel rooms, with about 2,500 in St. Paul near the main convention site, Gruenberg said. An additional 6,700 rooms are in Minneapolis, about 15 minutes away. All the remaining hotel rooms are within a 25-minute drive.

Tampa had reserved 21,000 hotel rooms, with about 9,440, or 45 percent of the total, within 10 miles of the St. Pete Times Forum, said Karen Brand, vice president of marketing for the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau.

About 60 percent of rooms at full-service hotels, those with a restaurant onsite, are within 20 miles of the Times Forum. About 16,300 are rated three diamonds or higher by AAA.

On transportation, another important issue, Tampa was on relatively equal footing with the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis has a light rail system that goes from the airport to downtown, but not to St. Paul. Gruenberg said the cities will probably have to charter buses from elsewhere. Tampa had a similar plan.

Times staff writers Carrie Weimar and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 29, 2006, 00:08:50]


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