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Democrats scrambling after U-turn from Charlotte Motor Speedway

DNC: Money wasn’t ‘primary reason’ to move festival uptown

By Jim Morrill and Celeste Smith
jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com

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    Officials deny fundraising problems

    Convention officials Tuesday denied a Bloomberg News report that said organizers are $27 million shy of the $36 million needed for the convention.

    Dan Murrey, executive director of the city’s host committee, declined to comment on the figures, which other officials described as wrong. Convention CEO Steve Kerrigan told National Journal: “I don’t know where they’re getting their numbers from.”

    It’s not the first time officials have disputed figures. But they have yet to release any of their own, despite repeated requests.

    Organizers have to raise nearly $37 million to stage the convention. Under the party’s self-imposed rules, they can raise no money from corporations or individual donations of more than $100,000.

    But events such as the Labor Day festival will be paid for out of a separate fund. The New American City fund, designed to pay for entertainment and hospitality, has no similar restrictions. It’s raising a reported $15 million. Jim Morrill and Tim Funk



In the end, there were too many caution flags.

But the Democrats’ decision to move their Labor Day gala from the Charlotte Motor Speedway to uptown Charlotte left them with barely two months to organize an event for thousands of delegates and visitors.

And it raised questions about how they’ll cope with security and protesters at an unprecedented, pre-convention street fair blocks from convention venues and likely security perimeters.

In moving the event, organizers cited logistical challenges, including getting thousands of delegates and other visitors to the Concord track, and denied reports that fundraising was to blame.

The change came five months after convention officials trumpeted the speedway event as a way to showcase the region and involve more people in the convention.

“It was ambitious, but those of us who are familiar with the landscape and the traffic saw the difficulty from the outset,” said one party insider, who asked not to be identified.

The decision leaves organizers just over 60 days to plan a new version of “Carolina Fest 2012.”

Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, said uptown would become “a convention village,” though few details are available.

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, a co-chair of the host committee, said the move had been kicked around for a couple of weeks.

“In terms of bringing people together, it will be easier to do that in downtown,” he said. “Probably another part of it is, it will cost us less to do a street festival downtown, and it’s more convenient for people to come.”

Dan Murrey, executive director for the host committee, said the move would show off uptown. Money, he said, “was not the primary reason for this.”

Speedway disappointed

The move caught many off guard in Concord. N.C. Republicans were quick to mock the decision, releasing a video titled “Concord Loses.”

“Frankly, we were going full-force ahead, planning to have the event here,” said Peter Franzese, the city’s public affairs and projects manager.

“We’re certainly disappointed,” said speedway spokesman Scott Cooper. He said the host committee will honor the terms of its contract, though neither he nor convention officials would disclose what those terms are.

Both convention and Cabarrus County officials tried to play up the positive. Murrey said the convention has 14 Concord hotels under contract. And Donna Carpenter, president and CEO of the Cabarrus County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the county still expects an economic impact of $6 million from the convention.

The Labor Day event developed when organizers decided to shorten the convention by a day, starting business on Tuesday, Sept. 4, instead of the traditional Monday. It’s still designed to draw thousands of people to a day of politics, entertainment and food.

Some Democrats applauded the decision.

“Logistically, it would be difficult to do at the speedway,” said Charlottean Pat Cotham, a member of the Democratic National Committee. “And I just want people to enjoy our city.”

A spokesman for President Barack Obama’s campaign said they still plan to use the street fair as an organizing tool to sign up volunteers and supporters.

Security questions

But the switch from the speedway raises questions about security and public access to the festival that neither convention officials nor Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police answered on Tuesday.

For example, Murrey didn’t say whether the light rail stops uptown would be accessible or closed.

“We’re still working through those things, and the security and transportation plan will be announced as we get closer to the event,” Murrey said. “The good news is that there are more access points for public transportation into uptown than any other part in the region.”

Murrey said people taking the bus to the festival could use the relocated transit center. The city is moving the center to Third and South Mint streets for the convention. It’s now across from Time Warner Cable Arena, the main site for the convention.

Officials also didn’t say whether the Monday festival will include demonstration space for protesters.

“Currently the demonstration space is scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday,” Murrey said, referring to the city’s announced route for protesters to use Sept. 4-6.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police spokesman Capt. Brian Cunningham said the department and others are prepared to execute “a seamless security plan” that will ensure a safe environment for attendees. Law enforcement officials have yet to define a security perimeter, which is expected to close access to streets around the convention sites.

Holding the gala uptown will make it more convenient for some events. That includes “The American Presidential Experience,” an exhibit of memorabilia that will include a replica of the Oval Office and Air Force One. It will be located off Mint Street on the planned site of the new baseball stadium.

“It showcases downtown,” exhibit owner Jim Warlick said of the venue move. “It’s a Charlotte event and everything should be down there.”

Staff writers Bruce Henderson and Tim Funk contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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