"The most open and accessible convention in history."
That's the promise organizers of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte have been making for months, repeating the phrase so often - on their website, in interviews, in speeches - that it's become a sort of local mantra.
But their pledge is bumping up against some real-world challenges, such as raising money in a sour economy and waiting, then waiting some more, for the Secret Service to decide on a security perimeter for uptown Charlotte.
Convention organizers have been meeting with neighborhood associations, business groups and others.
But they won't say how far along the Charlotte host committee is in raising the required $36.6 million to pay for convention costs.
They insist nothing's been decided about moving the busy uptown transit center, even though it's located across the street from where Democrats will renominate President Barack Obama.
They can't yet give uptown businesses - and their 83,000 employees - all the information they will need to plan.
And they don't spotlight some of their fine print: Contractors who get work with the Democratic National Convention Committee have to sign a confidentiality pledge that keeps them from talking to the media "on any matter whatsoever related to the convention or the DNCC, without the express, written consent of the chief executive officer of the DNCC."
It's been nine months since Charlotte was chosen to host the 2012 convention, and almost as long since city workers - police officers, engineers, and planners - began spending taxpayer-funded work time getting ready for the week of Sept. 3, 2012.
But, in many cases, mum's still the word when the organizers - the DNCC, the local host committee and city and police officials - are asked for specifics about anything from security arrangements to transportation to fundraising.
What they will say is that no final decisions have been made yet about some of those things and that there's no point in offering details that may change.
"(Organizers) are providing information that they can provide," said Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is working closely with the DNCC and the host committee. "But there are still a lot of unknowns. And as the planning process gets closer in, there will be more information to share."
Many of those details won't come until a security plan is in place, which one city planner predicted may not be finalized until a month before the convention.
But DNCC spokeswoman Joanne Peters said the guiding principle is that "the DNCC aims to have the least impact possible on Charlotteans' daily routines ... (and) will work with our city partners to communicate that information to Charlotteans at the earliest possible date."
Charlotte Center City Partners, one of the groups working with the DNCC, has convened meetings with uptown property managers and neighborhood groups, setting up lines of communication and bringing in city, police, Secret Service to dismiss unfounded rumors and set expectations on when more details will be available.
They're also fielding questions - and giving a few answers - on everything from how the convention will affect city services (garbage pickup may happen later in the day) to whether the free Gold Rush trolley will keep rolling uptown (too early to tell).
The big banks? They say they're working with the DNCC, but have few specifics so far.
"We're not hearing frustration," said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Center City Partners. "Decisions are not 100 percent - especially with the security protocol. The Charlotte community gets that, respects that."
Frustration for businesses
But some uptown businesses near the arena say that uncertainty is making it tough for them to plan for their employees' transportation and parking needs during convention week.
Or even whether they'll be able to stay open for business.
"It's like a big gray cloud that's hovering," said Damian Johnson, co-owner with twin brother Jermaine of No Grease barbershop, which is physically attached to the arena.
The city has told them they may have to close for convention week - at least to most of their regular customers, who likely won't have the credentials to get near their place. The barbers could possibly cut the hair of Democratic delegates.
UNC Charlotte is also in the dark about whether its center city building will be in the security zone - a designation that may mean moving students.
"Classes that meet at center city will be held but may be moved to (the main) campus or continue online or other arrangements made for students to attend their classes during the convention," said John Bland, the school's spokesman.
J.B. Brunet, general manager of Central Parking System, leases a parking lot on North Brevard Street across from the arena. The lot serves monthly and daily customers, and event parking at the arena. He hasn't heard anything yet about security or business operations during the convention.
Early notice would help with planning, Brunet said, and "the sooner the better."
John Lassiter, president of Carolina Legal Staffing, located in the Charlotte Plaza building on College Street, said he's gotten no word yet from the building's landlord or DNCC organizers - and he's anxious about that.
Lassiter, a Republican who served on the City Council and school board, said his contract workers can't just take a week off work because that would affect revenue.
Nearly 100 workers will have to get in and out of workplaces, many of which are uptown at law offices.
"I'm about an 8-iron from the top of the arena. I'm pretty sure we're in the security zone," Lassiter said. "It hasn't been defined, but folks are using other cities as reference."
Though the convention is still 10 months away, that doesn't seem so far for some of the uptown businesses.
"No one has sure answers," said barbershop co-owner Johnson. "We're talking to the city, and they're talking to somebody else, and we're not sure who."
Controlling the rumors
In many cases, that "somebody else" is the DNCC, whose 50-member staff works out of the 13th floor of the old Wachovia building on South Tryon Street. Under the leadership of Steve Kerrigan, who organized the president's 2009 inauguration, it's at the center of convention planning - and messaging.
"It's simply good practice," said Peters, "to check in with other partners in the city to ensure that organizations are communicating the most recent and accurate information to Charlotteans."
When the Observer called Johnson C. Smith University about student reports that out-of-town police officers will be bunking on their campus during convention week, the school suggested contacting the DNCC. (The DNCC then suggested contacting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which did not return Observer calls.)
In August, CATS chief executive Carolyn Flowers told an audience that the transit center - site of 20,000 boardings a day - would likely have to move because of the convention. The DNCC moved swiftly - that very day - to offer a "clarification" that no such decisions had yet been made about this nerve center for the city's bus and rail service.
"Any comment like (Flowers') is terribly premature," Kerrigan later told the Observer. "There are a lot of rumors out there, and what we don't want to do is get information out there that's incomplete."
Those rumors continue to fly, including that temporary alternatives to the transit center are under discussion behind closed doors.
But the DNCC's Peters said that "it would be irresponsible to speculate on which venues in the city will be impacted and how."
And, reached last week, CATS spokeswoman Jean Leier would say only that "CATS has not been informed of any decisions that would impact the transit system during the Democratic National Convention."
Few answers on money
To win the bid for the Democratic National Convention for Charlotte, the city's host committee had to agree to raise $36.6 million to cover the costs of, among other things, refashioning the Time Warner Cable Arena, where the delegates will meet, and the Charlotte Convention Center, where 15,000 visiting journalists will file most of their stories, on-air reports and blogs.
The DNCC's contract with the host committee - a private nonprofit group - calls for monthly financial reports from local organizers. All contributions, it also says, "shall be disclosed publicly by the host committee within an agreed upon regular time frame."
But no such disclosures have been made.
"At this point, we've decided we're not ready," host committee CEO Dan Murrey told the Observer when asked again recently how much money the group has raised. "I think we're doing great."
Such secrecy sets the Charlotte effort apart.
At this point in 2007, organizers of that year's Democratic National convention in Denver had announced they were working toward meeting a December goal of $15 million - a benchmark on their way to raising $61 million overall.
Organizers in Tampa, where Republicans will nominate their candidate in 2012, announced in August that they had raised $15 million so far. And, unlike the Democrats in Charlotte, they have not promised a more open convention planning process. Unlike the Democrats, for example, they are accepting corporate contributions and personal donations above $100,000.
The DNCC's Kerrigan and other Charlotte organizers would rather focus on how they are being open and accessible by committing to such contribution restrictions as well as by promoting diversity and by sponsoring events designed to include those who can't attend the actual convention.
But local Republicans have begun making the organizers' lack of transparency an issue. Even some GOP members of the host committee are speaking up.
"I would certainly like them to be more open about it," Charlotte City Council member Edwin Peacock III said about the fundraising and other issues. "I guess it's their right to do that. But, at the same time, it's our right as citizens to know. Because we do have city staff involved ... there are some taxpayer dollars being spent."
Denver: It's early
The city of Charlotte isn't planning on hiring additional staff for the Democratic convention. But several employees will be working extensively on the convention, according to a memo that City Manager Curt Walton wrote earlier this fall.
Walton said the city wouldn't be able to work on consolidating parts of city and county government because the convention was taking up too much time.
City engineer Jeb Blackwell, for instance, is the city's point person for the Time Warner Cable Arena. Assistant City Manager Jim Schumacher is in charge of coordinating transportation. And Carol Jennings, special assistant to the city manager, is serving as the city's liaison to the Democratic National Convention.
The city's cost for security is expected to be paid for by a $55 million federal grant - now winding its way through Congress - but Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police are also planning and training for the convention.
Jennings said she knows people have a lot of questions about how the convention might affect their daily lives and routines next year. Ditto, uptown businesses.
At some point, she said she hopes to answer those questions via a Q&A section on the city's website.
In Denver, site of the 2008 Democratic convention, many of the same kinds of questions were asked.
Early on, organizers tried to share with those living and working near the convention site what had happened in other convention cities and what their options might be, said Mike Dino, who headed Denver's host committee.
But, as in Charlotte now, the answers often came long after the questions.
"They want to know: 'Where are the fences going to go up?' " said Dino. "And we don't necessarily know."
Staff writers Celeste Smith, Andrew Dunn, Steve Harrison, Jim Morrill and researcher Maria David contributed.