Downtown dwellers, businesses brace for RNCby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul police say downtown traffic disruptions during the Republican National Convention in early September should be relatively contained. Preliminary plans show unfettered access to I-35 and I-94, as well as most downtown streets.
But a big question mark still looms over the immediate area surrounding the Xcel Energy Center. Police say they won't finalize traffic details in this hot zone until mid-August. Workers and residents near the Xcel are worried about the headaches in store for them.
St. Paul, Minn. — The night that Barack Obama drew more than 30,000 people to downtown St. Paul still haunts Keith Schmitz.
"It was the most insane thing I've ever seen in my life, as far as that many people in one area for one particular thing," Schmitz said. "It was kind of like Grand Old Day going down 7th St., basically."
Schmitz is a cook at the legendary Mickey's Diner, just a couple blocks from the Xcel Center. And he knows the crowds and mayhem that surrounded the Obama event represent just a slice of what he can expect in the first week of September, when the Republican National Convention comes to town.
The diner is situated in a roughly seven-square-block area where decisions about street closures and security measures are still up in the air.
Schmitz says he's worried about losing his off-street parking spot and wonders how he's going to get to work.
"I was hoping I would have known everything by now, but I haven't heard anything from my bosses. I don't even think they know, and they own the place," said Schmitz.
While vehicles may be blocked off on some streets, Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom says the public will still be able to walk up to any business, church or hospital.
"We anticipate all of the businesses will be open down there. The sidewalks will be open. For those that want to be open and have public customers, they will be open," Bostrom said.
In fact, St. Paul's plan may pleasantly surprise anyone who's familiar with the disruptions that plagued Boston four years ago during the last Democratic National Convention. The city shut down a busy freeway near the convention site and had to divert commuter rail service. Some businesses reduced their hours or closed altogether.
St. Paul officials are beginning to meet with district councils, businesses and churches over the next few weeks. They are also working with Metro Transit to figure out how to reroute bus lines. Bostrom says public forums in mid-August will provide a more complete picture.
"The timelines for the convention will be established by that time, we believe," Bostrom said. "The agenda, the number of sessions, the time of day, number of delegates, number of media. Everything we've been using for our projections have been based on previous conventions."
Some businesses have already made adjustments. The Children's Museum of Minnesota, for example, has decided to close to the public on Labor Day, when throngs of anti-war protesters will march past its doors.
The city expects 45,000 visitors to flock to St. Paul for the convention. City engineer John Maczko says the city has dealt with crowds like this before. Maczko says four years ago, the National Hockey League All-Star game and Winter Carnival Ice Palace drew 150,000 people for one weekend.
"And similar streets were impacted around the Xcel, and we expect things will be different, but it's short-lived," Maczko said.
Still, many downtown residents are nervous about the hoopla. Condo owner Rod Halvorson is president of the downtown district council.
"I know there's a group of people who talk of leaving for a week, and going and visiting friends and relatives in other locations. But I would say the vast majority of people are nonchalant and know this is occurring, but will try to get around despite the fact that a huge event is going on next door," Halvorson said.
Halvorson has attended the past two Democratic national conventions as a delegate, and he says there's no question that businesses will be affected, even if they're still open for walk-in traffic.
"There were businesses in the restricted zone where people could walk to, but it was like a deserted island in those areas," said Halvorson. "People could walk up to those businesses, but if the traffic wasn't going there, business was nonexistent. It was quite a lonely place for the businesses within five or six blocks of the convention center."
But Keith Schmitz, the Mickey's cook, is confident that the diner car and the streets around it will be packed. It might be such a hassle that he may ask for that week off.
- Morning Edition, 06/19/2008, 7:50 a.m.