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Charlotte RNC loses parties, luster; what might have been

Former Fox News star Bill O’Reilly was set to hold court for a night at Spirit Square. The jokesters at “The Daily Show” had booked the Knight Theater for a week of taping.

There was talk of maybe Toby Keith headlining a concert at the Knights’ uptown ballpark. At the Billy Graham Library, a prayer breakfast was scheduled.

And to officially welcome the thousands of out-of-town guests — delegates, donors, elected officials, and media from all over the world — the Charlotte 2020 Host Committee had planned a nearly $2 million “Southern Comforts” party, complete with beach music and bluegrass, every style of Carolina barbecue, and bags of swag that included a tiny NASCAR-styled stock car.

Those events promised to be among the highlights of a Republican National Convention week that would have been.

But after two years of planning, the extravaganza that was expected to launch this weekend in Charlotte was derailed after a few turbulent months by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, Charlotte will host a closed-to-the-press weekend meeting of the Republican National Committee, and a one-day gathering of just 336 delegates. On Monday, this small sampling of the party’s 2,500 delegates will officially renominate President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Then, most of them will leave town.

“I’m saddened that we can’t take advantage of the buzz” that would have surrounded Charlotte again just eight years after it won rave reviews for its hosting of the Democratic National Convention, said Jill Kay, communications director for the Charlotte 2020 host committee.

Also gone are the new jobs and the fat tips that would have come with a full-dress in-person national convention — the kind that both political parties ended up deciding against during this public health crisis.

Mohammad Jenatian, president of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 jobs would have been added for the convention, mostly by event-planning companies.

And the city’s expected economic impact of more than $150 million from the RNC has plummeted to practically nothing.

“Now, in just months,” Jenatian said, “our whole universe has changed.”

Celebrities on uptown streets

When 2020 began, Jenatian and others had visions not of a pandemic but of Charlotte as party central, with 1,200 events, crowded restaurants, celebrities strolling down Tryon Street, and TV news crews recording it all.

These planners even hoped to convince N.C. lawmakers to let bars in Charlotte stay open until 4 a.m. during RNC week, Jenatian said.

For many delegates, he said, “the night would just be beginning after the convention business was done” in Spectrum Center arena.

Meanwhile, the host committee and scores of other groups — including lobbyists, state delegations, GOP politicians, TV shows and podcasts — were still busy early this year planning events all over the Charlotte area, from the uptown theaters to Bojangles Coliseum.

Among the biggest: A luncheon on August 26 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. That was the one that secured women’s right to vote.

Dan Hooks, whose Party Reflections handles everything from chairs and tables to tents and dance floors, said his company expected to work at events in Fourth Ward Park, Romare Bearden Park and the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At AvidXchange Music Factory, which hosted a spirited media party during the DNC in 2012, owner Noah Lazes said he had been in discussions to put on corporate parties bankrolled by the likes of Google and book Republican-friendly musical acts.

“We could have ended up with a good mix of performers,” said Lazes, who mentioned Sammy Hagar, Hank Williams Jr., Britney Spears and Gene Simmons of “Kiss” fame as one-time possibilities.

Larry Farber, who owns the Middle C Jazz Club on Brevard Street in uptown, said he thought he’d hit the jackpot when his club was chosen as one of the “Sweet 16” venues preferred by RNC planners to host events during convention week.

“They liked our location, and the size of the space,” he said. “We thought we’d have a week full of people going in and out of our space.”

Including some Republican-leaning or at least Trump-friendly celebrities. Like: Jon Voight, Clint Eastwood, Scott Baio, Roseanne Barr, James Woods, Randy and Dennis Quaid, Chuck Woolery, Willie “Duck Dynasty” Robertson, Kirstie Alley, Loretta Lynn, Wayne Newton and — from the sports world — Bobby Knight, Mike Ditka, Mike Tyson, Curt Schilling and Mariano Rivera.

Over at the Epicentre, located just across the street from Spectrum Center, where Trump had expected to give his acceptance speech, Bob Durkin said he was sure his bars and restaurants would again be a hub for national media outfits and their nationally recognized anchors, pundits and guests — “anybody who’s anybody in the political world.”

During the DNC, the Epicentre was home to CNN and its CNN Cafe. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show set up shop at Black Finn, one of Durkin’s restaurants. The president of Bar Management Group, Durkin said he’d been talking to CNN and MSNBC for 2020, too, as well as Fox News and Bloomberg. Plus, he hoped to again work with big companies like AT&T and Budweiser that “spare no expense” in throwing private parties during political conventions.

As for music acts, Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, both Trump fans, “were on some people’s short list” early on to book during RNC week.

“But when March 14 hit, the world stopped,” Durkin said, referring to the date that N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper ordered bars closed because of the pandemic. “That’s the last day we were open.”

‘Made-for-TV event’

For those Charlotte boosters who see conventions as mostly a way to spotlight the city and attract corporations and people looking to move, the biggest blow was that 15,000 journalists no longer planned to descend on the city.

If they’re not here, they can’t tell Charlotte’s story to the world. “During the DNC,” Jenatian said, “we had every kind of media here, including morning (TV and radio) shows the whole week. You can’t put a value on that.”

The RNC 2020 host committee was ready with “fast fact” sheets about Charlotte for journalists planning to write about the city. Among the stats: Charlotte is home to more than 425 corporate headquarters; a net 97 people move to the city every day; it has 226 days a year of sunshine; and 47 percent of the city is covered by trees.

Michael O’Donovan, editorial director at Charlotte’s NBC News Channel, said as many as 200 news personnel from the network’s affiliates and its foreign clients had been looking at coming to Charlotte to cover the convention.

Multiply that by four — ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox — and it gets to be a crowd in town for what RNC planners acknowledged was geared to be “a made-for-TV event.”

The word was that Axios, a news web site that’s been getting more than its share of scoops since it launched in 2017, had planned to take over the Seventh Street Public Market during the convention.

And besides Bill O’Reilly and “The Daily Show,” a few other news shows devoted to politics were planning to do their thing from Spirit Square (“NPR Politics Live”), Booth Playhouse (“538 Podcast”) and Knight Theater (“Pod Save America”) during the RNC, said Rebecca Bereiter, a spokesperson for Blumenthal Performing Arts.

Brews and ‘cue

Visitors to the Republican National Convention that was planned would have started their week with a taste of Southern Comforts.

On Sunday, more than than 12,500 delegates, journalists and guests would have been treated to a virtual tour of North Carolina culture and cuisine at Charlotte’s Park Expo.

The Expo, an exhibition center off Independence Boulevard, would have had a “Mountains to Sea” theme as part of its celebration of the Carolinas.

In the mountain section, guests would listen to bluegrass music and sample western-N.C. barbecue. In the “east,” they would be treated to beach music and, of course, vinegar-based barbecue. In the “Piedmont,” they would get a sampling of urban North Carolina — and of craft beer.

“Brews and ‘cue,” in other words.

John Lassiter, CEO of Charlotte’s RNC 2020 host committee, said the goal would have been to show off the state’s diverse charms.

“The idea,” he said, “was that as somebody comes in, they would get a sort of passport for all North Carolina has to offer.”

Around Memorial Day, with Trump threatening to relocate the convention if Democratic Gov. Cooper didn’t relent on his pandemic-related restrictions, planning for the would-have-been convention in Charlotte grinded to a halt.

It looks like the 336 delegates who will attend Monday’s scaled-back convention will still get a bag of swag. But now it includes a tube of hand sanitizer and a red mask with the RNC 2020 logo.

Tim Funk covers politics and the Republican National Convention for the Observer. He’s the newspaper’s former Washington and Raleigh correspondent, and also covered faith & values for 15 years. He has won numerous awards from the North Carolina Press Association. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.

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