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At The RNC, Expect A Struggle For Attention

Set up for an evening event at the Great Lakes Science Center. [photo: Matt Richmond / ideastream]

Just after closing on a late May afternoon at the Great Lakes Science Center, an exhibition hall starts to fill with partygoers. There are hot plates framed by replicas of moon landers; tables are set up in the middle of a display on rocket engines. Events like this are not uncommon here, but during the RNC, it’ll be how they do most of their business, says CEO Kirsten Ellenbogen.

“Mainly, our biggest worry, well my biggest worry and the biggest worry for our staff is how many cots we have at the science center and making sure that people get a rest in between things," says Ellenbogen.

She says that week in July is usually their busiest. In a normal year, most of their visitors are locals, but this year will be different. 

“We do hope to attract more and more of the delegate families for example during a week like this," says Ellenbogen.

When local officials began the campaign to bring the Republican National Convention to Cleveland, they argued this would be the city’s moment in the national spotlight. But as the city tries to put its best foot forward, it’s also trying to avoid being overshadowed by the partisan political event at the center of festivities. 

But there will be competition for attention at the RNC. The Republican Party will try to put on a show inside the convention. Outside, demonstrators from across the country will likely line Cleveland’s streets and sidewalks. And then there’s the city itself, playing the role of both backdrop and organizer of many of the week’s events. 

Cleveland has been getting ready for a while now: bars have applied for extended nighttime hours. There will be a new police sub-station downtown. The recently completed Hilton Hotel was a key element in winning the convention. And a rebuilt Public Square is expected to open later this month.

“From my perspective, we look at this as a once-in-a-lifetime marketing opportunity for the businesses downtown," says Joe Marinucci of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. He says thousands more hours will be spent tidying up before July.

“The city’s out doing everything from things like painting the fire hydrants to planting trees and replacing some of the dead trees in Downtown Cleveland. We want this to be a great coming out party for us,” says Marinucci.

Marinucci sees a well-thought-out balance that will lead to minimal disruptions. The convention is an evening affair. Events during the day will be centered around delegates’ hotels, which are spread throughout Northeast Ohio. The RNC has asked the delegates not to drive their own vehicles. They’ll be bused downtown for the convention. At night, there will be organized events and open bars. Then back to their hotels. Nothing the city can’t handle, says Marinucci.

“The other night, for example, when the Cavaliers played, the Indians were in town, we had about 38,000 people in downtown that night," says Marinucci.

But organizers predict 50,000 visitors for the RNC. As for the demonstrators, nobody knows how many of those plan to be in town. The city’s rules allow marching for a few daytime hours, on the edge of downtown. Cleveland police have reserved 200 beds at the county jail, just in case.

At the beginning of the 2008 convention in Minnesota, authorities rounded up hundreds of protestors in mass arrests. The police actions there led to negative press coverage and eventually lawsuits, something Cleveland hopes to avoid. The Great Lakes Science Center’s Kirsten Ellenbogen was working at the Science Museum of Minnesota, which was inside the secure zone and closed for the week. She remembers the bad press caused by those arrests.

“The good news is conventions seem to clean up quickly. So we didn't have to wait long to get back into our building. It's very impressive how quickly everything folds up, cleans up and moves out of town,” says Ellenbogen.

And Ellenbogen says, no matter what happens during those four days, the city’s residents will at the very least see some long-term benefits - fixed roads and more fiber optic cable.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.