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The reviews are in, and Charlotte is a surprise hit at the DNC

Transportation, some hotels drew scowls; but thumbs-up for friendly, compact city

By Michael Gordon and Pam Kelley
mgordon@charlotteobserver.com

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  • Other commentary on the city’s performance

    •  Hotels and motels got mixed reviews. The Washington Times claimed bedbugs were a problem in some Charlotte hotels, though the health reports it cited were from previous months or years. Some guests disliked staying miles from uptown Charlotte, as far away as Concord and Rock Hill.

    And some guests, including several reporters, complained about flea-bag accommodations. Gawker’s John Cook described his room as a “$250-a-night mildewy rathole for truckers and prostitutes on a decimated strip mall.”

    Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, says the city needs more convention hotels if it aspires to host national and international events. “That’s one of the lessons out of this.”

    •  Business was slow to dead for some retailers and restaurants, so slow that Johnny Bitter, owner of Johnny Burrito on South Tryon Street, drummed up customers by standing on the street in a giant sombrero and carrying a “Burritos for Barack” sign.

    •  Charlotte’s skyline missed out on good television exposure when the Democratic National Convention Committee moved President Obama’s acceptance speech from Bank of America Stadium to the Time Warner Cable Arena.

    • Some visitors complained that security was excessive. “You know, Los Angeles, New York, Boston managed to hold a convention without paralyzing the whole city and Charlotte does not seem to have been able to do that,” National Journal columnist Ron Brownstein said.



CHARLOTTE, N.C. At last week’s Democratic National Convention, Charlotte debuted on the world stage. The performance?

You might say it was the unexpected hit of the season.

Visitors praised Charlotte’s walkable uptown, helpful police officers, good restaurants and – you knew this was coming – our friendliness.

“There’s no hospitality quite like Southern hospitality!” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gushed on the convention stage. “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart put it another way: “You’re the nicest people,” he told an ImaginOn audience. “It’s really kind of annoying.”

Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic National Committee boss, even kindly teased Mayor Anthony Foxx that Charlotte should be the Democrats’ permanent convention site.

This is not to say that everything went perfectly. We know New York Post columnist Cindy Adams didn’t enjoy her time here. Adams claimed in a column that there are more people in her New York building’s elevator than in Charlotte. And that North Carolinians eat ribs for breakfast. Which we don’t. Usually.

We also heard complaints about seedy hotels, over-the-top security and transportation stumbles. And we’re quite aware that 35,000 convention attendees endured an abnormally rainy week.

Foxx said the city plans to review the week’s operations. Every convention city has problems, the mayor said, but he “has never been prouder” of Charlotte’s public employees.

Despite any shortcomings, visitors – many in Charlotte for the first time – said they were impressed.

“This is one of the most hospitable places we’ve ever visited,” said delegate Karen Garcia, treasurer of the Arkansas Democratic Party. “I definitely could see Charlotte hosting other big events on the size of the convention.”

“It’s been a home run in every way,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Denver’s mayor when it hosted the 2008 Democratic National Convention. “Like Denver, you’ve got a vibrant, robust downtown that most of the rest of the country knew nothing about. Now they do.”

Some had low expectations

Maybe Charlotte benefited because some people had low expectations for this convention. In 2011, when the city was chosen as host, we heard complaints that Charlotte was too small. Media portrayed us as a NASCAR-loving town located somewhere north of Atlanta.

“What I’ve noticed over the years, especially in the North and Northeast, is that people’s stereotype of any place south of the Mason-Dixon Line comes from tobacco road movies,” says Mary Newsom, an associate director at UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute. People fly into Charlotte for the first time, she says, “expecting Bull Connor and Blanche DuBois.”

Instead, the nation has seen that Charlotte is “a clean, great-quality-of-life city,” Foxx said Friday. “They found out that we had the guts to go after this... when a lot of people thought we had no business trying to get a convention. We worked together to deliver an amazing week.”

Jacquelyn Orton, who lives in Salt Lake City, thought Charlotte was a great convention choice – walkable, accessible and friendly. Orton is the widow of the late Congressman Bill Orton, and Charlotte marked her sixth DNC.

“Cities like New York City – they’re prepared, but not necessarily happy to see you. I think there is something to be said for bringing a major convention to a midsized city,” she said. “The people were so happy to have us there.”

Local restaurants, pilloried by some out-of-town critics before the convention began, proved popular with many out-of-towners.

“I’ve never liked grits,” said Ric Andersen, who works on Capitol Hill. “But I had three different kinds of grits this week that I’ve actually enjoyed.”

The city’s image also traveled well, former Republican mayor Richard Vinroot said. He spent convention week on a Greek cruise, getting glimpses of coverage through CNN.

“I’m literally seeing how we look to the world, and we look pretty darn good,” he said Thursday from a ship on the Aegean Sea. “Has it been worth it? Who knows. But I’m on a ship with people from all over the world, and now they all know about Charlotte.

“… Mission accomplished.”

‘A second-tier city’

Until recently, Charlotte couldn’t have pulled off the convention.

Even though some locals bristled last month when Reuters, the international news agency, described Charlotte as a “second-tier city,” you could argue that Charlotte only reached the second tier a short time ago. That came with the help of $6 billion in private and public investments in the uptown from 2000 to 2010.

Five years ago, we didn’t have the Lynx light-rail line, which opened in late 2007. The EpiCentre was still a year away. There was no Ritz-Carlton hotel, N.C. Music Factory, Knight Theater or Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. They didn’t open until 2009. The city also didn’t have the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Mint Museum Uptown or the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which all came along in 2010.

Even in 2012, hosting was a stretch, or, as Charlotte Center City Partners President and CEO Michael Smith said, it was “Charlotte’s all-in moment, where we just pushed the stash of chips in.”

Many of those investments followed the Charlotte City Council’s approval of a spending plan in 2001 that led to construction of the Time Warner Cable Arena, a controversial move voters had opposed in a nonbinding referendum.

Subsequent City Council votes helped bring the Westin hotel and museum row on South Tryon Street, vital amenities during convention week, said former council member Lynn Wheeler, a Republican, and a key contributor in the arena and hotel votes.

UNC Charlotte’s David Walters, an architecture and urban design professor, hopes city leaders will continue investing in infrastructure – trains, streetcars, sidewalks. “If we backtrack on the environment or infrastructure, we can kiss our future hopes goodbye.”

Charlotte Center City Partners hopes to parlay Charlotte’s new higher profile into economic development, Smith said, but the process won’t necessarily be a linear one.

A talented young person might come to Charlotte for a first job, or a business might look to invest or relocate a corporate headquarters. “They might not draw a line back to the DNC,” he said. “They’re just going to know about our city.”

So what’s Charlotte’s next big thing? A Republican convention would be fine, Foxx said, but not “the stretch” that the city has shown it’s ready to make.

“I think we should begin looking at a Super Bowl,” Foxx said. “Longer term, we should begin thinking about the Olympics.”

Whether Charlotte pursues those events or not, Dan Murrey, executive director of Charlotte’s host committee, predicts we’ll see a subsiding “of the striving to be something different” that has characterized the city in recent years.

Instead, we may just be happy to show off who we are.

Said UNCC’s Walters: “We are second tier. We need second-tier cities. Cities like us … are the real engines of American prosperity and progress. We’ve shown that a really good second-tier American city is a good place.”

Maria David, Tim Funk, Marion Paynter, David Perlmutt and Kathleen Purvis contributed.

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